It’s probably easiest to start this one with a disclaimer – both sheepskin and synthetic bags have their strengths and weaknesses. I play both a sheepskin with Manawatu Pipe Band and a Ross synthetic pipe bag with St Andrew’s Pipe Band – both choices carefully chosen by the respective Pipe Majors as to what is the best medium for each band to get the most out of our instruments. I have also tried many other brands of pipe bags.
For those new to synthetic pipe bags – they relieve the need to periodically season a bag. This allows a piper to pick up and play an air tight pipe bag out of the box at any time. With the ability to add a zipper to the bag, synthetic bags have allowed for moisture control canisters which can extend playing time significantly, as well as allowing players in a band to all minimise or add the same levels of moisture cohesively.
Ross Bagpipe Bags is an Australian company that produced one of the first synthetic bags available and have gone through many iterations over the years. From a lightweight fully synthetic bag with a clamp on the tail (and the associated stories of the sudden deflation during competition performance), to the unique red suede ‘hybrid’ bag, Ross Bagpipes have now release a highly breathable leather bag.
The New Ross Breathable Leather Bag
Having been part of trialling the new leather bag on a band scale with St Andrew’s Pipe Band, both in the extremely hot and dry (i.e. 40 degree) Australian climate and cold and wet Scottish weather at the World Pipe Band Championships, the bag has met all durability expectations. This is particularly evident by the attention to detail in the finish of the product being perfectly stitched, trimmed and glued. Throughout the trial sample, the issue of leaking bags appears to have been eliminated, however Ross Bagpipes still provides their 2 year warranty on all bags.
I have also performed trials with playing a wet bag (both on the improved quality red suede bag and the new blue leather bag) and neither colour ran onto a white shirt (this is in reference to previous issues with the red suede colour running).
From a performance aspect, the new leather bag provides added weight which more closely replicates the feel of a sheepskin bag. The leather material also provides added firmness to attain greater pressure on the bag. The bag is still highly breathable (i.e. moisture goes out but air stays in) due to its high-tech internal liner which is the same as the red suede bag. The fine perforations in the leather allow the moisture to easily work through the leather layer.
Here’s where the review gets a bit away from a standard review. When playing a bag, you get used to the shape and feel. While it may not be ‘optimum’ you find yourself thinking it’s the norm. However, I found myself going from a standard size sheepskin to medium size Ross bag in the same practice and realising that the bag I was playing wasn’t optimal for me. I wanted a synthetic bag that I could put under my arm and feel the comfort of a sheepskin bag – taking away any adjustment period.
Doing a bit of trialling and investigation I broke it down into 2 areas:
The bag was too big for me. I’m over 6 foot and a medium bag didn’t suit me. I think many people see medium as the ‘standard size’. In comparison, a standard sheepskin such as Begg is more equivalent to the Ross extended small. As soon as I trialled a smaller bag (extended small) I instantly found extra freedom, could tuck the bag further under my arm and was far more comfortable. I can only assume there are many more players with medium bags who could do with a small or extended small.
However, I still wasn’t totally satisfied in my quest for an imitation sheepskin bag. There was still a difference; a slight roundness that meant my forearm was making contact with the bag and restricting my top hand playing.
So I Cut and tied a Ross Bag, in the same manner as a sheepskin – but without the need to go through the seasoning process. This meant getting an extended small Ross bag with no stock holders pre-installed and cutting and tying the bag. In making my stock points I did move them forward slightly to more closely reflect the standard sheepskin positioning, or the Livingston model that Ross Bagpipes offers. What I found was well beyond my expectations. Firstly, by tying in the stocks the material was pulled toward the stock and allowed the material to drop away after the end drone, allowing my arm complete freedom – I would say more so than my sheepskin. With this extra freedom came extra control over my bagpipe, making cut-outs significantly easier. The other major benefit was that the removal of the rubber stock holders increased the vibration level considerably – more important for higher graded players.
By doing this, I achieved the closest synthetic replica of a sheepskin bag that I have ever played – both in terms of comfort and tone. And have achieved this on a bag that I know will last many years without having to season it.
UPDATE: One other factor that I forgot to mention was the cut outs - sheepskin gives such easy cut outs. From what I was let to believe it's all to do with the stretch and only hide bags can achieve that. With the tied in bag, I reduced my squeezing period (with no blowing at the end of the tune) from 3 bars to just over a bar - exactly as I would with a sheepskin.
A 'cut and tied' Ross Suede Bag. As you can see, I ran out of tie in cord but some pink 'brickies cord' worked perfectly. While this trial was on a suede bag, the extra features of the Breathable Leather Bag would only enhance the outcome.
Unfortunately, many people these days (even sheepskin players) don’t have the skills to cut and tie a bag. For those who can, or know someone who can for them, this is a great way to increase what you can get out of a synthetic bag. For others, the choice of sizing becomes even more important – do not fall into the trap of having a bag too big for you!
Ross Bagpipe Bags come in a full range of sizes, with or without rubber stock holders (by pre-order in most cases).
Ross Bagpipes have a worldwide network of retailers. In Queensland, Ross bags are sold by St Andrew’s Pipe Band (firstname.lastname@example.org) or St Kilda Retail (http://www.stkildaretail.com.au)