Armitas & Chinks
Protection trumps style to start. Originally, a cowhide was laid over the lap and legs of a rider for protection. This was followed by a half circle cut of leather was used by a rider for protection from the elements. It might be decorated it elaborate stamping and carving.
From the Spanish arma or armor, “ita” is the diminutive when added to arma it means “little armor.” The temperate climate and often hot, dry days of California made the short chap ideal. Rain was usually not a major issue in the area of the vaquero. The nature of armitas, and later chinks, allowed evaporation and air to help dry the rider. The larger issue was heat. The shorter nature of armitas enabled more air circulation. Brush can tear up pants and shirts so armitas preserved the rider’s clothing as well as protecting his skin while permitting leg flexion in varied terrain.
Gear was made of what was at hand. Often armitas were made of leather from deer, elk or other mammals with and without hair left on (ex. cow, goat, horse, beaver, seal, bear, otter, etc.---although many of these are illegal here now).
Isolated by the Pacific Ocean with south running currents and some rough coasts, deserts, mountains and a small population, old CA had little in practical metal works. Buckles and the like were rarely seen. When it came to traditional armitas, the pre-cursor to chinks, no metal was used. A leather tie was made with a scalloped or short fringed apron that folded over it. No belts were included at all. Pockets were enclosed by the apron. They are not cut the same as chinks at all, but a little closer to shoeing aprons since they were rudimentary in their design. They can be made of lightweight elk or heavier of cowhide. Some are lighter in color due to the sun here, however, we have a pair that are dark brown and heavy. Primarily, they were made as step ins, however, self buttons also served as leg closures.
If you are looking for real armitas made in the tradition, there will be no metal except possibly some silver for ornamentation. Otherwise, they are something else, but not authentic armitas.
A large percentage of the armitas were edged with scallops. Fringe was short, not so long that it touched the saddle, got caught or one tripped over it on when working on the ground. The idea of classic proportion, moderation or “bastante” (“enough”) was practiced in old California.
The main portion of leather covered the thigh and knee plus roughly four or five inches to nearly touch the top of the boot to provide protection when kneeling down working on the ground. The inside of the thigh all the way up to the crotch was protected. This was also true for the inside of the knee. The means to secure the leather around the leg was varied. Made as pull ons or with tabs using leather buttons, these chaps have been popular on the Pacific Slope for well over two hundred years.
Individual decorative elements might include: conchos, spots, embroidery, for dress sometimes beadwork (although not practical for daily use), carved and stamped short leather strips, lacing, buckstitching, eyelets, etc.
“Creative” concepts of armitas sometimes seen today are often not even made in the style of armitas. Lack of knowledge has seen chink, armita, bat wing, shotgun and “hula skirt” styles mixed up into a “hash” featuring one to two regular belts, huge plaquettes, flared legs, lengths clear to the ground and enormous amounts of fringe all in the false name of “tradition,” without understanding.
Although a certain amount of fringe can be decorative and flashy when riding, ask yourself “What is the purpose of fringe or scallops?” To edge a piece, fringe or scallops help. Cutting them allows more bend in the leather. Fringe was used to wick away water and even blood. A little fringe or scallops in the right places, can help to diminish or disguise imperfections in the build of the rider. In the show ring, scallops do not react as much as fringe which tends to emphasize movement of the horse and rider to the judge.
Several varieties of chap have evolved from the armita. Originally, these were also a shorter and lighter type of chap created for the often warmer weather of the Pacific Slope. Added to the list of means to secure the leather around the leg today, a few use clips and D rings although these are not traditional. Besides the list of materials for armitas, today buffalo hide is seen. Some makers buy up old fur coats and remake them into chinks although they must be careful not to break the law.
Fringe can be single or double layered with colors, twisted and set, cut pointed on the ends, cut and added squared or sloped, feature insets, belts with silver (most appropriate for shows), carved belts and plaquettes, laced and front or back closure.
The front closure is traditionally made with a weak leather thong which should break in case of a rider hang up. For dressier chinks primarily for the show ring, a small silver buckle, tip and keeper can be utilized. Some chinks do up in the back with a belt buckle with a permanent thong in the front.
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