Helmet head: Doug Lais resurrects ancient craftROCHESTER — Doug Lais is a diehard Vikings fan. However, it’s not the Minnesota sports team that has engaged his fascination, but the Scandinavian warriors, merchants and pirates who plundered Europe and farther afield from the eighth through the 11th centuries.
By: Beth Rickers, Worthington Daily Globe
ROCHESTER — Doug Lais is a diehard Vikings fan.
However, it’s not the Minnesota sports team that has engaged his fascination, but the Scandinavian warriors, merchants and pirates who plundered Europe and farther afield from the eighth through the 11th centuries.
“Ever since I was a kid, my brother and I both loved the Vikings, their beautiful dragon ships, the helmets with the face guards. More than any other thing in the past, we were both drawn to the Vikings,” recalled Doug, who grew up in Worthington and now lives in Rochester.
The son of Heinie Lais of Worthington, Doug graduated in 1966 from Worthington High School and attended the Minnesota School of Art for three years, but admits he didn’t apply himself to his studies.
“It was the ’60s,” he explained away with a laugh. “I wish I’d pursued a career in painting, had stayed in Minneapolis. If the draft hadn’t been going on, I would have had a career as a painter. The military had other things in mind. I wound up in the military and went out to California and stayed there for like 30 years. I was living in Sacramento, towns near there, and wound up in Yuba City, which is just north.”
When an annual magazine report rated the top cities in the U.S., Yuba City was No. 350, at the bottom of the list.
“I knew I wanted to move back to Minnesota, and Rochester was at the top of the list, so I moved from the bottom to the top of that list,” Doug said.
Sometime after returning to his home state, Doug’s interest in Vikings once again reared its helmeted — and sometimes (but not historically accurate) horned — head.
“I have a friend who I went to art school with that I found out was working the Minnesota Renaissance Festival, doing portraits,” Doug explained. “I went up to visit him after being in California all that time. I wanted to dress up in something for the festival. I’ve always loved the Vikings, so I dressed up like a Viking, as much as I knew how. I made a helmet out of an old Stetson I found, cut the brim off, shaped it and covered it with epoxy to make it hard. I used wood stain on it to make it look like leather and used carpet tacks to simulate rivets and wore it up there.
“People thought it was a real leather helmet,” he continued. “I thought, ‘Gosh, maybe I can make a real leather helmet.’ I got online and started researching how to do the leather work and made one. It came out acceptable, so I made a couple more based on what I learned. By the time I’d made my third one, I thought I could sell them, so I challenged myself to do Renaissance festivals like my buddy, and it just grew from there. I’ve been doing the Renaissance fairs for four years.”
Calling his enterprise Leatherhelms, Doug also sells his wares via a Web site.
“I’ve expanded the lineup to include less expensive things as well,” such as medieval turnshoes, headbands and dagger sheaths, Doug said. “I try to do things that the other leather guys aren’t doing, so I didn’t do belts, pouches, because the market is flooded with that stuff.”
But the helmets are the most impressive and unique items in his leather repertoire. No leather Viking-era helmets have survived the many centuries, but historians are fairly sure they did exist, and metal ones have been unearthed.
“They’re actually fairly close replicas of the few Viking helmets they’ve dug up,” Doug noted. “I try to be historically accurate rather than get into the fantasy thing. I have to modify, because they do it one way in metal, and I can come close in leather.”
Making a basic helmet takes Doug about eight hours, with additional time to add various components.
“I use saddle skirting, thick cow hide, probably a quarter-inch or 3/16s thick,” he detailed. “I put the leather panels in water that’s almost boiling, and it softens it up. I throw it on a mold, and it hardens. It can take on a fairly complex shape. It’s really beautiful stuff when it dries in a curved shape.”
To sew the leather pieces together, Doug utilizes a 1920s or ’30s-era treadle sewing machine. He bought the treadle model purposefully, thinking someday he might haul it to fairs and demonstrate his craft.
“I’m not good enough at it yet,” he admitted. “I don’t think they’d enjoy seeing the craftsmen swearing at his sewing machine. It’s certainly a long-lasting machine, though. It will last forever.”
In addition to the Minnesota Renaissance Festival in Shakopee, Doug has also frequented a similar event in Wisconsin as well as smaller events throughout the region.
“Within 250 miles of Rochester, there are at least 10 fairs that go on during the summer. Most are single weekend shows. There’s one in Sioux Falls, one in Sioux City, Des Moines, the Amana Colonies, Wisconsin. I do a few of them, but working and doing the fairs on weekends is a killer. This year I’m taking a sabbatical from the fairs. It burns up my vacation time, and I want to keep the marriage balanced.”
Although she doesn’t share his deep fascination with Viking lore and life, wife Toni is supportive of his endeavors and sometimes accompanies Doug to the events, dressed in her own wardrobe of ancient garb.
Doug has diligently promoted his Viking sideline through the fairs, but the Web site, www.leatherhelms.com, has also generated interest in his unique craft. He’s fulfilled a number of commissions, including one for a performer in a death metal band.
“I never did ask the name of the band. I didn’t know if I wanted to know,” he reflected. “It came out really cool. He had everything on that helmet, so I wasn’t sure if it was going to come out.”
So far, Doug’s efforts to garner interest in his helmets among Minnesota Vikings football fans have been fruitless, although he did get a helmet on the head of a prominent Viking player.
“I got a phone call from a guy who writes articles for the Downtown Journal. He just saw my Web site and was doing an article on (Vikings lineman) Bryant McKinnie. He put the two ideas together and wanted to take a photo with McKinnie wearing one of my helmets. I figured I’d have to make a large helmet for the guy, and it was a good thing I did. I made it extra large, the only one that big I’ve ever made, and they had to force it on his head.”
Through his craft, Doug met fellow Viking enthusiasts all over the country and even around the world. True to Viking custom, he sometimes barters and trades wares.
“There’s a fellow who wanted a helmet like ‘Lord of the Rings,’ and I spent many hours coming up with a design,” Doug said. “This guy’s a sign maker, does beautiful signs out of barn wood, hammered metal, steel, copper, brass. He forges his own letters and does laser cuts. He’s making a sign for my business. I traded (with) this guy from Norway, made him a pair of Viking boots, and he’s making me a Viking knife.”
Building such relationships has been one of the side benefits of Doug’s craft, and he’s also enjoyed furthering his knowledge of Viking history and lore.
“… It’s been really fun learning” about the Viking garb, “first of all being disillusioned about a couple of things, like no horns on the helmets. Horned helmets came along as sort of an operatic addition, by Wagner or someone, and they became part of our culture. But it’s been fun figuring out what motivated these Viking raids and trying to see them through the eyes of an average guy, what motivated them to go out and do the stuff they did, not just a blood-thirsty bunch of berserkers. I think most of them were just looking for a place to settle down, and if somebody didn’t want to cooperate with them, they just took it.”
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