The “bag” of the bagpipe has the sole function to be a reservoir for a constant supply of air under pressure that keeps all reeds vibrating at optimum.
For that, the reservoir needs to be sealed and free of leaks if it is to be held at a constant pressure. It also must perform this function consistently over a long time.
One of the additional functions of the pipe bag is also to balance moisture content in the bagpipe “system” in order to keep it at a controllable level and produce the best sound possible.
Today, all of this can be achieved with bags that are made of “traditional” animal hide or synthetic materials. The modern Highland piper is not at a loss when choosing a bag to achieve the basic functions mentioned above and produce that ideal sound. That sound though, is something each piper should decide for themselves, and experiment to find the bag that helps them achieve it.
Ask yourself these questions when choosing a pipe bag:
• How much work is involved in making and keeping the bag airtight?
• How good is the bag at controlling moisture?
• How will I maintain the bag?
• How long will the bag last?
• Is the bag comfortable to use?
Each of these questions have different answers depending on the type of bag. Each type of bag will have different strengths, weaknesses, and trade-offs. What is “better” will depend on your needs and your ability to balance the answers to the above questions to your satisfaction.
How much work is involved in making and keeping the bag airtight?
Animal Hide: Bags made of traditional sheepskin, cowhide, or goat hide are not naturally airtight and must be made so with the addition of some type of “seasoning.” Regular applications of seasoning will always be needed throughout the life of the bag. Hide bags must also be airtight around the points where stocks are attached to the bag. Tying in stocks for an airtight seal takes a bit of work and extra materials.
Synthetic: Bags made of synthetic material are manufactured to be airtight and require no additional seasoning. Today’s synthetic bags also come with rubber sleeves or grommets for easier airtight installation of drone stocks.
How good is the bag at controlling moisture?
Animal Hide: Moisture control is critical to the sound quality you will achieve. Many pipers will claim that a well seasoned hide bag is the key to achieve a bagpipe sound that is unmatched. Traditional hide bags made airtight with seasoning have moisture control built in. The hide itself absorbs some moisture and the seasoning acts as a hygroscopic layer to collect moisture during playing time, thus balancing the amount of moisture moving through the bagpipe at any given time. This has its limits depending on the outside conditions and length of playing time and the piper might need additional equipment. The addition of a tube water trap can add an extra layer of moisture collection. Other types of “sealed” hide bags typically require the addition of some sort of added moisture control. Hide bags with an installed zipper will allow the option to use one of many elaborate moisture control systems to add another layer of control.
Synthetic: Moisture control is critical to the sound quality you will achieve, but synthetic bags do not have any ability to control moisture on their own. Most synthetic bags or combination hide/synthetic bags require the installation of a moisture controlling system. Moisture control can take the form of something as simple as a tube water trap to elaborate systems that use canisters of desiccant and hoses attached to the stocks. Again, playing conditions, desired sound quality, and environment can dictate how much moisture control will be needed.
How will I maintain the bag?
Animal Hide: Regular applications of seasoning to animal hide bags are needed to keep the bag completely airtight. This seasoning will be needed in constant supply throughout the life of the bag. Traditional, seasoned hide bags will also need to be played frequently to maintain their airtightness and moisture controlling capability. Sealed hide bags require more infrequent treatments of seasoning.
Synthetic: Synthetic bags do not require any additional maintenance outside of regular checks for airtightness. Synthetic bags will always be airtight whether they are played or not played. Occasionally, synthetic bags may need to be wiped down on the inside after playing sessions to wipe away excess moisture.
How long will the bag last?
Animal Hide: A traditionally seasoned hide bag under regular, active use will last anywhere from 2 to 4 years depending, perhaps less, perhaps a bit more. Since hide is a natural, and organic material, each bag is effectively unique and will decay over time. It is impossible to predict how long the bag will truly last and will be effected by playing frequency and climate. Hide bags do wear out and will stop performing at some point. Purchasing regular replacements will be required. “Sealed” hide bags that use other forms of seasoning may last longer, up to 5 or 6 years before a replacement is needed.
Synthetic: A well-made synthetic bag will last about 5 to 7 years on average. Like the parts of a car, the parts of a synthetic pipe bag will wear out unevenly. Synthetic bags use glues that will deteriorate over time and active play. Rubber grommets and zippers can also crack or loosen as they deteriorate. Air leakage can be temporarily fixed by using patch kits and other measures, but as with hide bags, when air is leaking, the bag is not functioning and it is time to get a replacement.
Is the bag comfortable to use?
Animal Hide: Many pipers like the feel of the bulkier natural hide bags under their arm. The instrument sits more firmly against the body. The bags are cut and stitched in a shape that conforms to the body for easier positioning of the instrument. Hide is thicker, stiffer, and retains its original shape even when deflated, and provides greater resistance under the arm in the blow/squeeze cycle. It’s greater weight and thickness provides a firmer support of the drones during playing.
Synthetic: Synthetic bags are less contoured to the body and can feel like a “balloon” under the arm. Rubber grommets for the drones force the drones straight up in a stiffer position against the body that some pipers find uncomfortable or awkward. The lighter weight of synthetics means that the parts of the instrument may move around more during the blow/squeeze cycle. The lighter weight also means that the bag will not sit as firmly under the arm. Some modern “hybrid” bags have a natural leather outer layer that remedies this.