The Talk of the Craft
The Talk of the Craft
Note from the Club
Growing up, I remember going on family road trips and stopping in the roadside shops along the way. Sometimes it was for snacks, other times for antique-looking (who can resist?? 🙂 ), and other times it was those leather shops.
Walking in, the smell was instant, leather, mmmmm. The walls were filled with tooled belts, and accessories of all sorts. Some were very tourist-y, while others had true craftsmanship woven into the patterns and designs. After being overwhelmed by the sheer volume, it was easy to begin to gain an appreciation for the work that went into them, without yet fully understanding any of it.
So that was “leathercraft”, saddles, boots, and belts. The wild west. 1800’s America. As a kid, we’re often aware of what we’re most exposed to. As I learned more about the craft, I became very aware of the immense globalness of the community. It’s huge, far, wide, and more than I had ever imagined.
It spans cultures, thousands of years, styles, methods, techniques, tools, and regions of the world. The original exposure I had was but a drop in time of how far reaching the history, and community of the craft really is. So I explored.
As I explored, the richness began to fill my mind, the incredible people who have helped shape the craft, where they’re from, their personal journeys, their personal stories. The state of the craft today, the technologies that provide for our tools, the leather that we use, approaches for cutting, painting, dyeing, edging, regional differences, changing cultural preferences, availability of resources, functional needs over time, and on and on.
In a way, leather craft is interwoven into the evolution of human life throughout history. How the world has been shaped over centuries, and the needs to survive, from early clothing, to armor for wars and expansion, to simple accessories to hold money and our keys. When taking a step back, it’s eye-opening. Leathercraft is a true global community.
Kangaroo leather, one of the strongest in the world, primarily comes from Australia. Some very fine leathers come from Italy. The Sergey tools (popular stamps) from Bulgaria. Styles of leather carving from the USA, vast amounts of tanneries in Pakistan, a rich history of leather guilds in Medieval Europe, Native crafting traditions from literally every continent, and online and mail order supply shops.
And it all finds a home right on our desks, in our homes, and in our workshops. We can hop online and chat with fellow-crafters via digital message. Share in live video courses with experienced crafters from around the world and in different time zones. As large as the world is, it’s gratefully small due to today’s technologies.
And we get the privilege of sharing in all of that, learning from all of that, and contributing to all of that. And with those opportunities come some welcomed responsibility in understanding its value, and being there for one another.
At its core, leather craft is a trade. Its knowledge passed from generation to generation. First by story-telling, then by books, then by recordings, then by videos, and now more than ever back to live story-telling (in online courses and workshops). The methods evolve, yet the craft is fundamentally the same. It special to think that what we share is similar to a university student in Australia, a tribesman in Ghana, a saddlemaker in the USA, a hat maker in Canada, a belt maker in England, a shoemaker in Italy, a tool maker in Bulgaria, a tanner in Mexico, an burnishing-gum maker in Japan, and there’s likely a crafter or two in Antarctica.
So literally across the 7 continents of earth, and through human history, there is an integrated globalness to our leather community. Friends to meet, styles to learn, and items to craft. It’s quite fascinating and special to be a part of something so vast and timeless. Maybe as you work on the next project, pause and reflect on how this global community we’re a part of can continue to grow in meaningful ways, as we help each other along our journey in leather working.
Also, with this issue, we celebrate the 1-year anniversary of being able to connect with and grow with all of you through the Journal. We appreciate each of you so much, and look forward to exciting things ahead.
In This Issue
Statistics & Trends
What's New & Popular
Each year at the Western and English Sales Association Show (WESA), the leather industry’s latest trends are on full display and one of the most popular colors this year is purple. Purple has long been associated with royalty as the color was difficult to produce and expensive. Kings and Queens wore purple and used purple ink to showcase their wealth and status. These days purple is still as popular as ever. At WESA this year, purple was definitely on display. Purple exotics like crocodile, stingray, and elephant were popular as well as purple embossed leathers. If you’re looking for a trendy color to accent your projects, purple would be a great choice.
Another popular trend from the WESA show this year are the Southwestern and Aztec patterns. These patterns came about hundreds of years ago by the Aztec people who lived in what is now Central Mexico. The patterns that they created were symbolic graphic representations of their interpretations of astronomical bodies like the sun, moon, and stars. The Southwestern pattern that was created by Native Americans living in the Southwestern United States, draws inspiration from a similar place as the Aztecs, nature. Both patterns are accentuated with sharp angles and straight lines forming diamonds and triangles that repeat in a pleasing way. These patterns were found everywhere you looked, from hats and bags to scarfs and woven fabrics. Be sure to keep an eye out for some new leathers that feature these designs coming to your favorite leather shop.
Perhaps due to manufacturing shortages or logistical challenges, saddles lately are being manufactured with hard leather seats and lacking the “soft-style” seats that were padded with seat foam. Many manufacturers are having trouble getting the foam in stock, partly due to the increases in prices for the chemicals required to produce the padding foam, so saddlemakers have pivoted and hard leather seats are all the rage now. That’s not to say it’s a bad thing, these hard seat saddles allow for further customization and tooling and at WESA there were some that definitely had a lot of bling. Some of these things look too pretty to ride.
Careers in the Craft
Sunhouse Goods - Kellen Honey
By Wyatt Moadus
In southern Iceland, there exists a small ecovillage, populated with a sparse hundred or so inhabitants and accompanying guests. While its primary stated purpose is to provide a safe space for those with disabilities, it also promotes organic cultivation and reforestation efforts. One of the oldest such communities in the world, it is a magnet for ecologically-minded artists and artisans, many of whom take up temporary residence there to run workshops and create art in a beautiful environment.
They call it ‘Sólheimar’, literally translated as ‘Sun House’. After spending a semester of study there, Kellen Honey returned home to North Carolina feeling invigorated.
“It was the first place I had seen anyone gather around craft as a lifestyle,” he says. Graduating from Appalachian State University with a degree in Sustainable Development, Kellen had already set himself on a course to becoming an environmental attorney, even taking a job and studying for the LSAT to begin the arduous journey through law school. But instead of following that path as expected, he took an unexpected detour.
At a farmer’s market four years ago, Kellen had a chance encounter with Cole Avery of Cottonwood Handmade, who was selling his own handcrafted leather wallets. “I stuck around and asked him a million questions, and eventually he invited me into his shop, where he showed me how to make a simple guitar strap from thick Chromexcel. Within a few weeks, I’d blown all of my money on cheap tools and bad leather, and was in Cole’s studio every day trying to teach myself how to make bags.”
This was the point where Kellen realized his own way forward would not be as a lawyer in an office, but as one man in a workshop. As a way of paying homage to his experience in Iceland, he decided to name the new venture ‘Sunhouse Goods’.
“I never would’ve imagined this for myself,” he says. Prior to this point, Kellen had no experience with any kind of crafts. “However, something about leatherwork really clicked for me, and I was really surprised with how quickly I was able to pick it up. Every ‘passion’ that I had before this just sort of fell away and felt like a pretense.” Finding quick success selling his goods, it did not take long for leather earnings to exceed the hourly wages at his corporate day job. Within eight months of picking up his first tool, Kellen quit his job and started operating Sunhouse Goods on a full-time basis.
“It was a ‘burn your ships’ type of moment for me. I honestly didn’t expect it to work out, but didn’t really have much to lose and knew that if I didn’t at least give it a shot, I might regret it later.” In order to make it work, he pored over books, online resources, and spent hours experimenting to learn the ins and outs of his new craft. “I also barraged other makers with countless questions.”
Starting in a spare bedroom, Sunhouse’s first real dedicated location was a 1930’s schoolhouse, and resembled an idealized vision of what a workshop could be. Dust motes drift in the air, illuminated by tall industrial windows that let sunlight pour in and set the place aglow. Machines and houseplants occupy windowsills together and bring life to the space. “Even though it was definitely haunted, the light in there was just phenomenal to work in,” he muses. He would move several more times before ending up where he is now, occupying a corner in an active cobbler shop. “It turned out that the shop owner already followed me on Instagram, and shortly thereafter he invited me to move my studio into his shop. I’m now extremely blessed to have a rent-free space to be creative, as well as ample access to shoe repair machinery.”
Like many leatherworkers Kellen started off with wallets and small goods, but soon discovered his passion for bags and other three dimensional pieces. It is here that his skill as a designer and sense of aesthetics really shine. “For me, bags serve as more of a culmination of all of the techniques that I have at my disposal,” he says. The freeform, sometimes meandering design process inherent with bagmaking can be said to describe his artistic style. “In school I was always the type to edit and revise while writing rather than after, and I feel like that’s very similar to the way I make a bag. Rather than do too much planning and patterning, I just sort of freehand it. As long as I’m very present for those moments when I make aesthetic choices mid-build, things usually turn out pretty good,” he explains.
Because of this, Kellen’s work ranges wide from traditional to modern and sometimes even a little abstract, often blurring the line between product and art. Scrolling his Instagram profile you will see his unique interpretations of wallets, handbags, duffels and backpacks, but his artistic voice is at its strongest when he is given a free hand to express a concept. Perhaps the best demonstration of this is the aptly titled Lunar Backpack.
“I think that was the first project I did right after I got my bell skiver and I just got so fixated on using that machine to do something I hadn’t seen before. It was a maker’s choice, and my only instructions were ‘mini backpack, green, moon detail,’ which to me is an absolute hall pass,” he says, excitement evident in his voice even now. Its defining element is the cover flap: a vision of the moon in waning crescent, surrounded by a sea of black sky adorned with pinpricks of stars near and distant. All this is done with clever use of leather, stitches, and a keen artistic eye. “I ended up making and then re-making the front panel of the bag three separate times before I was even remotely okay with it,” Kellen admits.
All the while, environmental impact and sustainability remain the stars by which he sets his moral compass. “It has most definitely influenced the leathers that I select and the tanneries that I choose to source from,” he says. “Unless the client has a specific need for something else, I like to choose Italian veg-tans whenever possible because of the stringent regulatory oversight of their vegetable tanning industry. My general rule of thumb is that if I wouldn’t feel comfortable dropping scraps for my dog to chew on (and possibly swallow), I don’t want it.”
Although both consumers and producers are now more conscious of ecological concerns than ever before, it’s too early to tell how much of an effect it will have in the long run. Kellen is watching and waiting to see how it turns out. “I don’t know that I’ve spent enough time in the industry to have developed an appropriate level of awareness to be making predictions. I’m hoping this whole mushroom leather thing takes off.” Regardless, as makers it is our duty to be respectful of our material, not just with its origin but also its legacy. Kellen sums it up neatly: “We should really be doing our best to make quality stuff that can stand the test of time and not end up in a landfill.”
He would say that his time at Sólheimar gave him many things, but one simple concept stands above the others. “It definitely helped me understand that there are life-paths equally as good if not better than the more traditional middle class options that had been presented to me in my life thus far.” In a time when many of us are rethinking our priorities, that is a lesson worth remembering.
Leathercraft in Colonial America
By Dan G.
The art and skills of leathercraft often run parallel to the cultures they are a part of. They reflect the people, the times, the needs, and the styles of the periods. Colonial America and the path to independence (from about 1450-1783), incorporated an incredible mix of cultures, needs, certainly leathercraft.
When colonists arrived in North America, they encountered the Native Americans and a culture that evolved from thousands of years of inhabitation. The animals they hunted, methods for tanning, and items they made were one influence. The colonists also brought with them many influences from the countries and cultures they came from. Early America saw many folks from Britain, France, Spain, the Netherlands, and Prussia, and some Mexican influence in the south.
This is a wide-ranging group of people and the overlap of methods and processes would mix to develop what would become the methods of crafting that were then common in westward expansion (1870s-1880s) and then totally shift dramatically during the second, major industrial revolution around the 1880s into the 1930s).
So, what would leather working look like in the 1700s? In general, like most crafts at the time it was a localized endeavor. There was some trade built on trappers and those exchanging hides for other goods, though very common was the local approach of hunting and collecting hides, and tanning them using natural methods. Often, this included deer, elk, bear, bison, and sheep. Smaller animals could also be used, such as beaver, badgers, foxes, and rabbits. Tanning could be done by individual families, or sometimes a local tanner in smaller communities, where they had enough customers to be able to focus on it as a business.
Before tanning chemicals were highly developed and available, brain tanning was often utilized, where the hide was soaked in a mixture derived from the animal itself. Sunlight was used to aid the drying process, and smoking was sometimes done to help soften the hides. The tanning process was quite smelly, as one can imagine :), so it was often done away from common areas of everyday life. Even as tanning became a staple of more modern society, we can often find in history that tanning operations were set on the outskirts or outside of towns, simply because it was more convenient to have the smelly operations further away.
What were the hides used for? In colonial times, much clothing was very utilitarian, and needed to perform well and last a long time. Leather was an excellent choice as it’s a material that has many great properties, and with proper care and maintenance, can last and perform well for decades. Such was the case it was often used for shoes, belts, straps, bags, pouches, slings, sheaths, wallets, saddles, and tack.
A typical farmer would have cows or oxen or horses to help pull tools, and would have harnesses and tack made from leather. That same farmer might have a leather sheath for their side knife, a leather sling for their hunting rifle, and straps holding their leather bags and pouches when working or traveling.
Books could be bound in leather, quality gloves made from leather, and clothing such as coats and pants could be made from deerskin and other leathers. As time progresses and militaries develop, soldiers use leather goods for all sorts of gear, ranging from cartridge boxes, to slings, to scabbards, to holsters. Officers and cavalry would have leather saddles and tack, some would travel with leather covered trunks, and leather could also be used for portable seating.
George Washington had a sheepskin wallet; Thomas Jefferson had a famous library, with many leather-bound books; and Ben Franklin, similar to many tradesman at the time, could wear a leather apron while hard at work setting type and printing is his print shop. And everyday people had, just as we do today, leather shoes.
As time would go on, styles and methods from the various cultures that influenced early Colonial America would further develop and guide the Western Styles of craftsmanship that are so commonly associated with the “Wild West. It’s fascinating to realize that leather goods don’t always jump out to us as something present in everyday life, though when we pause and reflect, it’s often easy to see how core they have been, and continue to be, in so many things that we do.
We can look to some of these inspirations and pieces of the past, even the timeless ones, to help inspire us as we envision what to create next, for ourselves, for others, and for a future that is ever-unfolding before us. Enjoy 🙂
Battery Powered Leather Crafting
By Dan G.
I am often intrigued and fascinated with technology. It’s so much a part of the human path, as we’ve developed and refined tools as long as we have been in existence. Leather working is special in that many of the techniques and tools we still use today have remained relatively unchanged. Yet, there are some technological advancements that offer us new opportunities in how we craft, the tools we use, and even how we communicate about them. Let’s explore some of them that can help make crafting easier.
Broadly speaking, for the hobbyist crafter, and some small crafting businesses, leather work is a mainly manual craft. Hand-powered, we create as we go. For those working in higher-production environments, or have larger budgets, big and fast, corded-machines make some tasks much faster and easier.
With advances in battery technology, making them smaller, lighter, and more powerful, we’re beginning to see more battery-powered tools that can be used in leathercraft, in any home and workshop. Here are a few fun ones:
Can be used to help burnish edges, etching applications, and polishing and buffing. The newer ones are cordless – gone are the days where the cord gets in the way, makes it tough to position the helpful angle, and needing to be close enough to an outlet or extension cord. Now, grabbing one is fast, easy, and they can be handy in even the smallest home workspace. Want to do some leathercraft in the park, at your campsite, or in your backyard on a nice day? No outlets needed 🙂
These battery-powered tools can be useful for watching designs into the surface of leather, or even tracing out patterns that will be carved and tooled. While the dremel can do some engraving, these pens usually have fine points and designed more specifically for this application.
It’s incredible what’s out there now with lights. While before we might have had a few desk lamps with adjustable arms, available now are powerful LED lights in many sizes. Some allow for change in color temperature (from yellow to white), brightness adjustments, and even have battery lifes up to 10+ hours.
Since some are very small, they can be placed around the desk, helping to eliminate shadows on the work space, allow for clearer and easier viewing of the items being worked on, and ultimately make for a more enjoyable crafting experience. Options include those that can be mounted onto adjustable arms, others on small tripods, others free standing, and others just cubes that sit on a work surface.
They can also be relatively low cost for their relatively big benefit, ranging from a few dollars for basic and useful ones, to $60+ for more powerful, specialized, and stronger versions. If you’re looking for a quick upgrade to your workspace, definitely check out the latest in LED lighting.
A clean workspace allows for more creativity as well as making it easier to find materials, tools, and produce quality work. Cutting and burnishing and edging can all produce little bits of leather all around the work surface, even a fair amount of leather dust. Remember the canned air that we’d press on and it would help get dust off of a desk or out of a computer keyboard? Well now there are battery powered ones.
Just charge up the duster and when you’re done with work for the day, spray off the work surface (ideally to an edge or wall where it can be consolidated and disposed of), and you’ve got a clean desk to begin work the next time. These are more of a nice-to-have kind of tools (a regular hand brush can work just the same), though if you want a little fun at the end of a work session, a nifty power tool can always do the trick.
Similar to the cordless dusters, once you have all of those small scrap pieces and fibers in an area, the vacuum is there to finish the job. We don’t need to plug the electrolux in across the room and finagle the thick hose over to the desk, now we’ve got all sorts of cordless vacuum cleaners available.
Some are dedicated units with their own battery, and others are accessory units part of power tool sets that can utilize the same battery (think drills, saws, and the like). Having one of these by the leather shop can make cleanup fast and easy after a session of crafting, making the shop a nice place to work and the next day of crafting off to a good start. As with most work spaces, clean ones help us focus on producing quality items that look and perform great.
While some tools will remain timeless in their value, effectiveness, and joy of use, these are a few newer ones that you might consider adding into your workflow and workshop. I’ve found some to be both fun, and invaluable in helping to make crafting easier. And we all like trying out new tools 🙂
Pioneers of the Craft
Dieselpunk, a unique blend of old school and new school
By Dan Snyder
If you have searched for leather patterns online, odds are you have stumbled across Dieselpunk.ro and may have purchased some of Tony See’s creations to make them yourself. Tony’s designs have a steampunk-like flair and are eye-catching and expertly crafted. His website dieselpunk.ro or leather-patterns.com has everything from finished bags, hats, steampunk wear, and accessories available for purchase or you can craft one yourself by buying one of his self-designed patterns from his workshop in Romania.
In addition to his patterns and finished goods, Tony regularly makes tutorial videos to accompany his designs as well as tool reviews of some of his favorite ones. His patterns are available on Etsy and his website and are easy to download and print right at home. Before starting the ILJ, I used his pattern to create my own leather hat and have since bought some more. His designs allow others to share in his unique blend of traditional leatherwork and contemporary flair to create beautiful leather products.
Because of the time difference between the US and Romania, we reached out to Tony via email to ask him some questions and learn a little more about what goes into his unique style of leathercraft.
My name is Tony See, I am the owner and designer of Dieselpunk.ro and I think I have the largest selection of leather patterns in the world. I started working with leather about 15 years ago because I couldn’t find a bag I liked. I had something very specific in mind and after looking everywhere I thought to myself, “I’ll just make my own, how hard can it be?” Today I am very happy I never found the bag I was looking for.
Long before I started dieselpunk.ro I always loved design and tried my hand at automotive design but it never got past the hobby stage.I’ve also been around computers and CAD software all my life and that really helped. So I guess that’s my background, besides I honestly think a good designer can imagine anything, a bag, a car or even a pair of shoes.
I get amazing emails almost every day from people using my patterns.Some told me they use them to keep their mind busy during difficult times, some say how they started a business selling bags I designed and of course it’s all very surreal for me. I am just grateful they bought my patterns.
I get inspired all the time, I may see a detail I like on a bag whilst walking down the street and think “hey, that’s a cool idea, maybe I can incorporate that into a design some day” or if I desperately need an idea I just pull [out] my notebook and keep drawing until I like something.
But when I set out to design something though I make sure it’s both visually pleasing and at the same time easy to construct.
Having said that many of my most successful and appreciated designs come from ideas I get from clients. I am very grateful to be the go to guy to design something for a lot of people.
I like all types of leather and I believe if you combine the right leather with the right project you are off to a great start. I do like the look of pull up [leather] if I had to be specific but again, no matter how much I like it, I can’t use it for everything. My favorite tool? I don’t know, I can’t say, if anyone will ever come up with a tool good for everything, that’s gonna be my favorite. Till then we will make do with what we have.
I guess it taught me patience and how valuable time spent is when creating anything out of leather. I do think, however, we need to adapt the trade to the needs of today’s clients.
I’ve built a large community on FB and Youtube who constantly expects something new so the whole selling and sharing of pattern business pushes me to create better designs and better tutorials. I had to learn new techniques, I had to learn how to take better photos and film better videos so these are skills that will always be useful to me no matter what I decide to do in the future. I am very lucky to have my customers and I try to keep in touch with them the best I can.
Just because I spoke about how lucky I am to have amazing customers, my worst piece of advice is to try really hard to make all of them happy.
Tools, Techniques, & Leather Types
Mule’s Foot Tool
By Bob George
A mule’s foot stamp is made of metal and has a long cylindrical handle with a U-shaped stamping pattern on one end. The stamping surface of the U-shape is angled such that the bottom portion of the U makes a deeper impression when you strike the top of the handle with a mallet or maul. Regardless of the stamp maker, most have the same general shape, but they do come in different sizes, the largest being around ¼ inch (6mm).
This stamp can be used in a variety of ways. Some use it as decorative marks on vines/stems of floral carvings. It can also be used to enhance stamping patterns.
Since the stamp portion of the mule’s foot is angled, many different stamping impressions can be made with a single stamp by simply leaning the stamp or varying the hitting pressure of the maul. When tilted so only the bottom of the U is making contact, it will make a very small V-like impression. When one stamps a series of mule’s feet, starting with a small impression, and working toward the largest, it can provide the illusion of distance or something coming out away from the piece.
The other advantage of the mule’s foot stamp is during the dying process. Since it is a fairly deep impression, it will appear darker than the rest of the object being dyed. The same thing applies when using an antiquing finish. It really adds depth, dimension, and a little life to a floral stem, vine, or even a flower petal.
Most leathercraft stores will carry these in their stamp selection. These tools are typically fairly inexpensive (around $6-10), but can add so much to your project.
Techniques - Wet Molding
By Bob George
Ever wondered how that piece of leather was perfectly conformed to a certain shape or why it was so rigid and inflexible? It was probably wet molded. Wet molding leather causes it to get real stiff and take on the shape of the mold. In some instances, the molds are actual items, for instance, firearms used to make holsters. In other instances, a block of wood is used as a jig to form a pouch for a utility knife or a pair of pliers.
Wet molding is typically done using veg tan leather. Some projects the wet molding will be one of the final steps, others at the beginning. For those projects, like sheaths and holsters, where it will be toward the end of the project, one will simply dip the leather item into a bath of water and completely submerge it for a few seconds. When I am making holsters, I completely dye the piece before stitching it up, so when I wet form it, it has already been stitched and dyed.
After removing from the water bath, one will immediately insert the item (firearm, knife, pliers, etc.) into the leather pouch. NOTE: If the item being inserted is made of metal, make sure to protect it by wrapping it with cellophane or placing it in a sandwich back to prevent it from getting wet. Begin to use your fingers or a boning tool to conform the leather to the item. When using your fingers, be careful not to leave fingernail imprints, scratches or transfer any contaminants. (I typically wear clean nitrile gloves to avoid transferring contaminants to the wet leather. Even with gloves, fingernail marks can be pressed into the soft leather. Make sure to have closely clipped fingernails and try using just the pad on the tip of the fingers / thumb or the heel of the hand when forming the leather.). Once the initial shape is taking form, continue forming the leather to the item every 15 minutes over the next couple of hours. Let it dry overnight. Apply any finish coatings at this time. You will notice the leather has lost a lot of its pliability and has taken on the shape of the item. They are now paired for generations to come.
Another method, but very similar is to make the form using a jig prior to doing any stitching / riveting. This jig can be the exact item the leather project will end up fitting or a block of wood made to a specific shape. The same basic techniques are used. Cut the leather piece that will be used slightly larger than will be required. This will allow trimming to size once the piece is dry. Submerge the leather for a few seconds, then immediately remove from water and place over the jig. Begin conforming the wet leather to the item and repeat every 15 minutes for the next couple of hours. Let dry overnight. If the wet formed leather is to be attached to another piece of leather, say a backing, use the backing to trim the formed leather to size. Before attaching the pieces of leather together, dye them at this time if desired. Now all that is left is fastening the pieces of leather together and applying the finish coat.
Some jigs are a series of 2 blocks. The base block has a shape protruding up that the leather will be placed on when wet. The top block has an opening, allowing the shape from the base block to stick up through the top block. The leather is sandwiched between the two blocks making the mold.
If you have any items you have wet molded, make sure to share pictures of your work on the ILC forum.
What’s in a name? - A Few Naming Conventions in Leather and Leather Products
By Michael Batson
Have you ever read a product description of a leather item or even a leather for a project and been puzzled by what that name meant? Sometimes the description is super specific with the tannery and actual name of the leather like Horween Chromexcel, Walpier Buttero or W&C Bridle leather but many times the descriptions aren’t that specific. In this article we’re going to go through a few of the “leather naming conventions” I’ve seen both in researching leather products and purchasing leather. We’ll be considering 4 basic ways we see leathers described in both product descriptions as well as leather sold to us as crafters:
Understanding the naming conventions will help us both if we’re makers/sellers of leather goods as well as when we are purchasing leather goods for ourselves.
We see this one with a lot of products: Full grain Aniline leather tanned in Italy. It’s a simple description of some general characteristics of a leather and sometimes its origin. The problem with this naming convention is that you can have a long string of descriptive words that customers might not generally understand. For example, “Brown, combination tanned, waxy finish pullup leather with a medium temper tanned in Chicago”. The description might also be light on details, such as, “Brown bovine leather”.
Customers might assume or imply certain characteristics, where in some cases it’s just appealingly-worded descriptions that don’t clearly convey the type and/or quality of leather that it is.
Tannery (where it’s tanned) and tannage (the tannery’s specific name for the leather) is the best way of knowing what you’re getting, but only if you’re familiar with the particular tannery and tannage. With a well-known tannery and a well known leather, then it’s perfect because most of the tanneries with well known tannage have decent descriptions of the characteristics of a given leather. With this there isn’t really a mystery as to what you are buying.
As a leather crafter knowing exactly what you’re getting helps you pick the perfect leather for your project. As a consumer of finished product or a seller trying to market a finished product however, your mileage may vary. Not everyone is a “leather nerd” and the name of leathers and tanneries aren’t really known by the general public. Adding to that complexity is the fact that many tannages aren’t well known even in the leather working community and the names don’t exactly “pop” by themselves.
I purchase lots of leather from Red Wing Boot’s in-house tannery, SB Foot and while some of their leathers have names that are well known and sound great in a product description: Amber Harness, Copper Rough and Tough, etc, others (especially their work-boot leathers) don’t exactly have names that roll off the tongue: Nutmeg Ebbtide, Weather Oak Aquasoft, or Tan Casco. I’m 100% in favor of leather suppliers selling leather by the tannage name but as a manufacturer sometimes changing the name is better marketing.
As a side point, tannery and tannage will mean a lot more in some branches of leather work than others. Most of the “big name tanneries” are making mostly what I’d call boot or belt leathers, but you’d be hard pressed to name any “famous” upholstery leather tanneries (even though there are many).
If you’re a large enough brand, it’s highly possible that you’ll work directly with a tannery to create a specific leather for a product in your line.
Hermes has an ownership stake in a few tanneries and, while on occasion they name the specific tannery and leather, they also make names for many of the leather tannages they use (Epson, Evergrain, Derma, etc). Lots of other big brands do the same.
These tannages sometimes show up on the market for other makers/manufacturers to buy, if the tannery hasn’t given the client exclusivity they may offer it to other customers if they think the tannage is one they really like. These leathers can also show up on the market when folks like me buy excess leather from bigger factories when they’re done with a specific run of a leather product.
Occasionally the name of the tannage becomes generic; for example, Saffiano leather was originally developed and used by Prada, but I’ve seen lots of other “scratch grain” leathers called “Saffiano” over the years in a variety of price points and qualities.
Naming products is a science unto itself, which is why you see lots of research and focus groups helping companies decide on the name of cars, new medicines or anything else. The leather products industry is no different; if the name of a leather is too obscure and doesn’t have the right “pop” for the intended customers, manufacturers will make up a name that fits with the look and feel that they’re going for.
For example, Allen Edmonds uses Shell Cordovan from Horween for many of their shoes and in interviews, representatives from Horween have stated that the company changes the names of the colors to appeal to a wider public. Garnet is Horween’s name for the color AE calls Chili. Horween doesn’t mind and actually encourages it and as a manufacturer it helps discourage others trying to copy if you don’t give the exact material you’re using. I bought a large batch of boot leathers from a larger company and they sent me a leather called “Red Dirt”…a customer contacted me for a pair of matching Kilties for a boot they bought as “Rust”…it was the exact same leather.
You’ll also find other smaller companies “inventing” names for the leather they use; I recently saw a local company calling all their leather “Milwaukee Leather”; my best guess is that they’re sourcing from a lesser known tannery (probably Law or Siedel Tanning in Milwaukee) and picked the name. The average customer is only going to recognize one or two tanneries if that.
There are some “purists” in the craft who think tannery and tannage is the only way to go and I’d agree that with well known leathers, it’s a great option. It’s something I will always do when a google search by the customer is going to bring back a result that helps them understand what they’re getting.
But sometimes we run into the issues that make using the name of the tannery and tannage impossibly counterproductive; I’ve bought tons of scrap and overruns from large companies and many times I don’t know the tannery and tannage or even when I do, it’s brand specific leather that won’t show up in any search results. With those I’m forced to describe the leather the best I can. The same thing happens when you purchase mystery bundles from some of the leather supply companies.
I’ve personally also changed the name of leathers for some of the products I offer when it seems to make the most sense. For example, one of the leathers that I mostly use in checkbooks and wallets is a tannage called “Old Fashioned Shoe Leather”. It’s a great high quality leather but if a person shopping for a checkbook or wallet sees “Shoe Leather” in the description, they might be a bit confused. So for that leather it’s simply “Full Grain” and the color in the product description.
As you can probably see there’s not really a right or wrong with what we call the leather used in what we make as long as we’re as honest as possible, we’re doing right by our customers. As a crafter, you can learn to see some of these differences, and even ask direct questions to the seller of the leather, as to its origin, source, and composition. Some sellers might be more knowledgeable, or open, than others.
As a craft, we can continue this dialogue to help bring more awareness to these conventions. It can help us become increasingly-educated, and help crafters be more informed about the leather choices they make for purchasing, and making many of the incredible products they use or sell to happy customers.
Ten Lessons Learned
Ten More Lessons Learned with Vulture Premium
By Peter Wagner
Peter Wagner is a talented crafter and writer whose insightful interviews have brought the leather community some incredible leassons to help in their journey. His series is called Ten Lessons Learned, and in his latest piece, Peter continues his conversation with Will DePass of Vulture Premium. Will specializes in crafting watch straps and leather goods using only the finest leathers from across the globe.
I hate to break it to you, but I haven’t cut into it yet. I am always tweaking my patterns by a millimeter here or a millimeter there and learning new and better techniques for things, so the vintage Leder Ogawa shell may end up being an eternal carrot on the end of a stick for me. After giving it some more thought, I don’t believe I will ever arrive at the destination of thinking I am good enough. Although that can be a bit of a torturous way for my mind to work, I like that it pushes me to get better and remain a life long learner in leathercraft and beyond.
Yes, I have been getting more involved in the teaching side of leather craft and am finding it very enjoyable and rewarding.
I remember how excited I was after the first time I trained with Go-san. It was a real paradigm shift for me and I began to look at items and projects from a completely different perspective. I learned a lot of valuable techniques and processes, but more importantly, I learned a new way of thinking about and approaching leathercraft. A lot of constraints and limitations I had before were completely obliterated and it feels really good to share that feeling and way of thinking with others.
To get back to your question, teaching specific techniques and processes has definitely made me a better crafter because you need to be able to explain why, not just how. A lot of leathercraft techniques are difficult at first and require a lot of practice and the building up of muscle memory. If someone doesn’t know why a technique is important, they are less likely to put in the practice time required to learn it.
Stopping to think about the “why” and figuring out a way to explain it requires me to think about these techniques from a different perspective and often leads to minor epiphanies that allow me to become more efficient.
Usually the closer you get the more flaws become apparent — with Will’s work…not so much.
I think anyone can benefit from leather craft lessons regardless of their skill level, but being at a level where you know what questions to ask is definitely important.
There’s things you know, there’s things you don’t know, and there’s things you don’t know you don’t know.
It takes a crafter a certain period of time experimenting with different materials, tools, techniques, and processes to figure out what they know and what they don’t know.
I think people benefit from training most when they have a pretty good list of what they know and what they don’t know. That way they can ask very specific questions and get very specific answers from me. I can confirm what they already know, teach them what they don’t know, and then through working together on their project they can discover what they didn’t know they didn’t know.
I am a podcast and music guy. Anything visual is too distracting for me and I end up getting very little work done. I listen to a few fishing podcasts: Bent, Cut & Re-tie, Mill House Podcast and The Captain’s Collective.
As for music, my tastes are all over the place. I listen to a lot of Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Peter Tosh, Steel Pulse, and Zamrock (Psychedelic rock out of Zambia in the 70’s).
Lately I have been way into The Deslondes new album “Ways & Means” and Johhnie Frierson’s “Have You Been Good To Yourself”.
Don’t see anything wrong an artist who writes lyrics like this:
Well, that’s just about all that I own
Or that I care to, I guess
Except this pair of boots maybe
And that funny yellow vest
And that leather jacket and that leather bag
And that hat hanging on the wall
Up until this point I have been a small goods guy, but I have been interested in bag making recently. I think it would be fun to mix things up and broaden my skill set. Ever since I started leathercraft I have been obsessed with Kusaka Kaban. I think Kusaka-san’s bags are true works of art and I would love to go train with him in Sapporo eventually – that is if he would have me haha. Also, Sapporo is just awesome in general and has killer seafood.
I would definitely say the $25-$100 dollar range tools are the work horses in my shop. It is amazing how useful chunks of wood with bits of metal stuck in them can be.
Sometimes a tool just needs a little modification to go from good to exactly what you need.
Yessir, I am still mostly doing white-label work. I think it fits best with my personality. I really thrive on batch work and finding ways to optimize my workflow to be as efficient as possible. White label work lends itself to a lot more efficiency compared to one-off items. You have larger quantities, so you can just sit down and let it rip. You don’t have to keep referring to your notes or emails for each individual item, taking out and cutting different hides, changing your thread color, adjusting your sewing machine tension, or accommodating this special request or the other – you can just work.
There are definitely some cons to white-label work though. Batchwork can be a bit boring and if you are making a ton of something, it can be brutal. It is at these times I try to remind myself that leatherwork still beats the hell out of sitting in an office and there are much worse ways to make a living. I think the biggest con though is that you are not building a brand for yourself, so you are putting all your eggs in fewer baskets since you haven’t developed a broad customer base.
To be honest, I kind of lucked into it. A leathercrafter buddy of mine had some work from a client that he just didn’t have time to do, so he referred it to me. The client really liked my work and then sent me a ton of business after that. Having a large volume of steady work enabled me to afford the equipment necessary for making large batches of items and gave me the confidence that it was possible. From that point on, it was all about networking and keeping my ear to the ground for potential opportunities.
As for things I wish I hadn’t done, fortunately there aren’t any. I have definitely enjoyed my journey thus far.
Everything in it’s right place before the crafting begins.
Oh man, I am so addicted to fishing it isn’t even funny haha. I’ve never really thought about it, but I guess there are a couple similarities between fishing and leathercraft. Fishing is a craft as well, but unlike leathercraft, most of the variables are out of your control. I think the “craft” part comes into play with how you choose to adapt to a particular set of conditions, and just like leathercraft you can only get good at that through practice. You can read as much as you like, but there is no substitute for time at the workbench or time on the water respectively. In leathercraft as well as fishing, it is important that you select the right tools for the job, know how to use them most effectively, and know how to maintain them. Although with leathercraft there is very little chance of getting stuck out in the marsh with no cell service covered in mosquitos as is the case with fishing down here.
I am glad you asked me this Pete, it gives me an opportunity for a shameless plug. For the past year, I have been in the process of making an online leathercraft lesson platform. It has been a tremendous undertaking learning video, audio, and editing, in addition to just extracting all the information in my head and organizing it in a cohesive manner.
My goal with these courses is to arm leathercrafters with the knowledge, skills and confidence to be able to make whatever they want and not be reliant on pre-made patterns or how-to type instructions. I will have plenty of patterns and build along videos, but my goal is really to wean people off of that kind of stuff through teaching pattern making, tool modification and maintenance, as well as fundamental leathercraft techniques on up to highly advanced stuff.
I have learned a tremendous amount over the last 10 or so years through my own work and training with others, and I am excited to provide a resource where crafters can access quality, tried and true information all in one place.
Not many people can afford to take the time off and come down to New Orleans to train with me, so this platform will be a way for me to pursue my teaching interests and reach people in a more convenient way.
I should be releasing my Leathercraft 101- course in the next six months or so, soon to be followed by courses on advanced techniques and incorporating machinery into your workflow. If anyone is interested and would like to be notified when I release my courses, please head over to vulturepremium.com/signup and join the mailing list. I won’t spam you – just let you know when the classes drop.
Featured Channel & Free Download
Featured Crafter Channel
Equus Leather is a shop based out of County Durham in the UK. Its owners are Charlie & Dawn Trevor, they design, make, and ship leather goods of exceptional quality all over the world.
Charlie began leather working in 1995 producing fine bridlework. His interest in leather was spanked while growing up, using the same leather suitcase that his grandmother used when traveling the world. The timeless quality and enjoyment of use stood out to him.
Equus produces everything by hand, using the best materials, leather, hardware, and stitching available. They also embody the values of quality, longevity, and the idea that a great leather item should be able to serve joy for literal generations.
We asked Charlie how their leathercraft films have helped them connect with crafters in meaningful ways:
“We’ve loved making the films for YouTube. In part they’re a celebration of the craft that we love and in part an expression of the way we feel about it. We never thought the films would be as successful as they have been, and they’ve allowed us to communicate with craftspeople from all over the world, in a way we never would have done otherwise. Many, many people over the years have said that our films have inspired them to start working with leather, and there’s nothing that pleases me more to hear that, I love knowing we’ve inspired people to start a wonderful craft.”
If you’re looking to learn from folks who every day contribute to quality in the leathercrafting community, it’s definitely worth checking out their channel. Moreso, these are beyond videos, they are short films – the production quality is a pleasure to consume, and the sights and sounds a true reflection of the craft. Enjoy!
Celtic Journal Cover by Tri Atelier Design Studio
In this issue, we have a creative and stylish journal cover designed by Tri Tran of Tri Atelier Design Studio, based in Vietnam. It is in printable PDF format and can be conveniently printed on A4 paper. The pattern includes a tools and materials list, is very well put together, and can make a fun project especially for those looking to practice their stitching skills. When asked how creating/sharing patterns has helped Tri connect with the leatherworking community, he shared:
“Leathercrafting involves a tremendous amount of knowledge and skills for people to get stuck into and master. It can be a little overwhelming for beginners, which is why I offer these starter patterns for free to anyone who has just started their leathercrafting journey. These patterns will allow you to practice basic skills such as cutting and stitching, all while only using basic tools and a minimal budget. You can start using these patterns straight away to have fun and create meaningful gifts for loved ones or start selling your own high quality leathercrafting products.”
For more patterns from Tri, click here to view his site, there are some really great designs, especially the horse head DIY keychain. And to jump into the Celtic journal cover, you can get it right now by clicking below.
ILC Club News
Latest from the ILC
What's New & Popular
Live 24/7 Crafter Chatting
We have added a brand new area to the Club for both free and full members, it’s called Crafterchat™ – a live chat area for 24/7 discussions with fellow crafters from around the world. For those quick questions while you work, sharing an exciting moment, or showing your recently-finished project. Just be logged in and click below to head on over to CrafterChat™ and see what folks are talking about!
The Global Leather Directory continues to grow and covers a range of leather related businesses, shops, and people around the world. The latest additions include studios from Macau, Turkey, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Click below to visit the Leather Directory and see what’s going on in leathercraft near you.
The new Facebook Group for the ILC is live and growing. Lots have already joined and you can look there for tips, insights, activities, and meeting/chatting with other great folks every day. We’re seeing some really great insights, projects, and stories from crafters around the world, click below to check it out for more.
We owe a tremendous amount of gratitude to the people that helped develop the craft we get to enjoy every day. With a treasure of knowledge from Jim Linnell, we continue our Studio Stories series, in the latest episodes looking at fine leather art from very talented crafters in Germany. Click above to view the video, and below to visit/join the ILC YouTube channel and get notified when new episodes are released.
Engage with the Journal Community
We’ll use your input when planning future issues.
Would you like to comment on an article?
Do you have thoughts on a particular aspect of the craft?
Click below to message us via email and send in a Letter to the Editor. We’ll plan to publish and answer 1-2 in each future issue.
Your opinions matter and we would love to hear from you.
Subscribe to the Journal
CONTACT & SUPPORT
PDF functionality works best in Chrome and Safari web browsers
We value all readers having access to the ILJ and helpful knowledge for free. If you’d like to support what we do, click below to make a donation securely through PayPal.