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Intro to Leatherwork

Welcome to Intro to Leatherwork!

Humans have been using leather for thousands of years to create all kinds of practical and decorative objects. The process of creating leather is a fascinating synthesis between nature and technology, and leather itself is an incredibly versatile material. Working with leather is often considered a specialized skill, but it doesn't have to be! Leatherwork may seem intimidating, but as you will see, it is actually surprisingly easy if you have the right tools. Once you start making things with leather, you probably won't be able to stop. I certainly haven't :)

This hands-on class is designed to introduce you to leatherwork by focusing on the skills you need to construct your own leather accessories. We'll be learning how to create designs using a type of leather called chrome tanned leather. Chrome tanning is a modern manufacturing process that produces fully finished leather (we'll talk more about how this type of leather is created and used later in this lesson). Chrome tanned is by far the most common type of leather, and working with it is a great way to be introduced to leatherwork because you don't have to worry about dyeing and sealing. Just choose a beautiful pre-finished piece of leather and use methods like cutting, folding, sewing, gluing and hardware to create an amazing project. Once you've been introduced to these skills, you'll be ready to tackle some even more advanced techniques.

In these lessons I'll present leatherworking skills one by one, and then show you how to apply them to two simple projects: a wallet and a small custom bag. I will also introduce you to some leather history, the different types of leather, the tools you will need for basic leatherwork and how to design simple patterns. By the end of this class you’ll have all the skills you need to start creating your own beautiful leather projects!


What We're Making

In this class we'll be making two simple projects: a leather wallet assembled with rivets and snaps, and a sewn leather bag with several possible design variations. I'll give you patterns for these projects, but you will also have some creative license to make your pieces unique.

For the wallet project you will be able to choose the color and finish of the leather, and the metal finish of the snaps and rivets.

For the bag project you can choose to make a small bag with a buckle closure, or use a variation of the same pattern to create a larger purse. You can choose leather for the main part of the bag, leather for the straps, and a hardware finish for the buckles, rings and rivets. You will also have the option to add a braided strap to your bag or add fringe to the bottom or pocket.

The small version of the bag can also be used to create a few styles by attaching it to different kinds of straps and belts in the last two lessons.

  • Attach a simple shoulder strap to create a purse
  • Attach to a belt to create a pocket belt or leg bag
  • Make a second small bag and add shoulder straps to create an underarm harness

Before you dive into the rest of this course, take a minute to think about what kind of aesthetic you want your projects to have and choose your leather and hardware style accordingly. In the next lesson we'll talk specifically about what kind of leather and how much you'll need for each project.

The patterns for these projects are available for download in the lessons that start each project.


Setting Up a Leather Workstation

Finding a good area to do your leatherwork will really help you have a productive creative experience. Having a dedicated space that you don't have to set-up and clean-up every time is ideal, but not always possible.

What you will definitely need is a sturdy, well lit surface with enough space to fit at least an 18" x 24" cutting mat. Butcher blocks, work benches, sturdy desks and even kitchen countertops all work well, rickety tables will just be frustrating! In a pinch, the floor can work as a base for cutting, punching and pounding... though your downstairs neighbors may not approve ;)

Having a tool box to organize your leather tools is very helpful, and, if you're like me, keeping your hardware in clear plastic divider cases is essential for your sanity. A different compartment for every size and color of rivet!? Yes please!

You will be creating some leather and paper scraps as you go, so it's good to have a garbage can nearby to help keep your space clean, but don't throw away too many of your scraps! Leather is expensive and sometimes small scraps can really come in handy.

In the next lesson we'll go over all the tools you'll need in your leather toolbox!


Some Leather History

Leather has been a part of human culture since pre-history. As a byproduct of hunting, animal hides were most likely the first material used to protect our distant ancestors from the elements as garments, footwear and shelter. Almost any animal hide can be turned into leather, including even the skin of some fish! The most common animals used for leather are usually large mammals, often the herbivores we are already hunting or raising for meat like cows, sheep, deer, or buffalo.

Unfortunately, raw animal hides will just rot or harden if left untreated, so early craftsman had to find a way to keep the hides soft and pliable by treating, or tanning, them with natural chemicals from the environment. Interestingly enough, some of the best compounds for tanning animal hides turned out to be other parts of the animals themselves, such as fat, bone marrow, brain and urine!

Leather was important in both Egyptian and Roman culture where more advanced methods of tanning using oils, minerals, and plant extracts had been discovered. There are paintings in some Egyptian tombs that depict leather manufacturing, and intact pieces of leather have been found buried with the pharaohs. In Rome, tanning was efficient and widespread enough that that even the common people, not just the rich, could afford to buy leather. In fact, a version of the high laced leather sandal worn by Roman senators is still part of our modern fashion repertoire today!

Photo by Daderot (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

In Europe, from the 14th - 18th centuries tanning was a skilled craft controlled by guilds, but working as a tanner was still a brutal, smelly job that required a lot of manual labor. In the late 1700s, tanning began to develop into a more large scale manufacturing operation, but it wasn't until the discovery of the chrome tanning method in 1858 that the industry really changed.

Photo by Anonymous artist - http://www.digibib.tu-bs.de/?docid=00000286, Public Domain

Chrome tanning, which is a mineral tanning method that uses chrome salts as the main tanning agent, reduced tanning time from 8 weeks to a few hours! This radical discovery along with the development of new machinery for processing leather quickly put most small independent tanneries out of business and turned tanning into big time manufacturing.

Old methods of tanning are preserved in places like Morocco where tanners still use things like municipal waste water, lyme, and pigeon dung to tan hides, and extracts from plants like henna, mint, indigo, and poppy to create beautiful bright dyes.


By Bernard Gagnon (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)


Donar Reiskoffer [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)

The tradition of of leatherwork in North America is to a large extent tied to the culture of the American West. Leather was a vital material for pioneers, cattle-herders and Native Americans alike, who often lived far from a source of manufactured cloth, but close to an abundant supply of animal hides. The leatherwork of these cultures developed a distinct aesthetic which was often a synthesis of native and colonial artistic traditions.


By Leoboudv - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9...


By Billy Hathorn - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1...

Today 80-85% of leather is chrome tanned in large industrialized manufacturing facilities, but there are still smaller tanneries producing veg tanned leather as well.

Leather is used for a wide variety of purposes in the modern world, and has played an important role in the fashion statements of many diverse cultural movements. From bikers and punks, to cowboys and socialites, many demographics can claim leather as an integral part of their sartorial identities.

There is still a thriving community of hobby leatherworkers in America, and more and more contemporary designers and craftsman are experimenting with leatherwork and developing new techniques and aesthetics. Leather also takes very well to laser cutting, which has resulted in a lot of very complex and interesting designs. Researching some of the possibilities will get you even more excited about learning to work with leather! You can also follow me on Pinterest where I am constantly collecting new leather inspiration. And a quick search for handmade leatherwork on Etsy will bring up a myriad of great independent designers.

If you want to delve further into the fascinating world of leather history, this is a good resource:

Why Leather - Edited by Susanna Harris & André J. Veldmeijer


Shopping for Leather

As I've mentioned, in this class we'll be working with chrome tanned leather, so before you go leather shopping, you need to know little more about what distinguishes chrome tanned leather from other types of leather, and how to choose the right kind for any given project.

While you can certainly pick out leather for your projects by look and feel alone, knowing how to ask for what you want with a few specifics makes you a more effective online shopper, and gives you some instant leatherworking cred with leather shop owners... which can make a huge difference, believe me :) I'll give you some basic information about leather types in the next section, but if you want to dive deeper into the different varieties of chrome tanned leather before you go shopping, go to the Leatherworking Encyclopedia at the end of the class and check out the section on leather.


Basic Leather Classifications

There are three basic things you need to think about when you are shopping for leather: What kind of leather it is, how thick it is, and how big it is. Understanding how leather is divided into these categories will help you know what to look for.

Leather Types

Chrome Tanned leatherhas already been dyed and finished during manufacturing. It is tanned using chemicals like chromium sulphate which shorten the tanning process and make it possible to create leather with more diverse colors and finishes. Chrome tanned leather does not take additional carving, stamping tooling or dyeing the way veg tanned leather does, and it will not be deformed by water in the same way. Chrome tanned leather is used to create most of the leather products you see, especially garments, handbags and furniture. We will only be working with chrome tanned leather in this class, and you will find more detail about the different kinds of chrome tanned leather in the next section and in the Leatherworking Encyclopedia.

Veg Tanned leather has not been dyed or finished in the tanning process and can be tooled, stamped, carved, moulded and dyed. Veg tanned leather is tanned using natural tannins that are found in organic matter, and is usually a light beige or flesh tone, the natural color of the leather (though you can find some veg tanned hides that have been pre-dyed). Veg tanned leather is mostly used for hand leathercraft like leather carving, armor, saddlery, shoemaking and bookbinding, and it usually requires dyeing and sealing to create a finished piece. We won't be using veg tanned leather in this class.

Rawhide is an animal hide that has been de-haired and cured, but not tanned. Rawhide is a stiff, semi translucent material that needs to be soaked in water in order to become flexible. Once it dries, it becomes rigid and holds its shape. It is used to make drum heads, water containers, moccasin soles and parts of saddles. Rawhide is a very specialized material and we won't be using it in this class.

Leather Weight

The thickness of a leather hide is measured in ounces (oz). 1 oz equals .4mm, or 1/64 inch. Most of the leather we will be dealing with in this class will be between 4-8 oz.

Knowing the weight you are looking for is useful when shopping for leather. There are gauges you can buy that are designed specifically to measure leather weight, but they are unnecessarily expensive. Alternately, you can use calipers or a ruler for a slightly less accurate measurement. I like to refer to a visual guide, especially when shopping online. I've included one here that you can print out:


Hide Size and Part

Hides are divided into sections which are sometimes sold individually. A hide is usually divided in one of the following ways. Different parts of a hide can be better for different projects. For example, if you wanted to use the raw shaped edge of the leather for a rustic look, a Belly section would be better than a Bend.

One problem that you will encounter as a hobby leatherworker is that leather, especially chrome tanned leather, is mostly sold by the hide or half hide, which is quite large when you're talking about a cow (other hides, like lamb and pig are a lot smaller). The majority of leather suppliers, like Tandy and Hide House, won't cut smaller pieces. This can make buying leather very expensive, and limit the variety of colors and weights you can use in one project. There are a few ways to work around this:

Find a leather supplier that will cut you smaller pieces of hides. Mercifully, my local leather store, S.H. Frank in San Francisco will happily sell me whatever size piece of leather I need, and I'm sure some others will too. If you find any good local resources for leather in your area, please send me a message and I will add your store to the leather suppliers list!

Work with a friend. If you know other people who want to learn leatherwork, go shopping together, buy a few different hides and split them between you. Or even become your own small-time leather dealer!

Raid scrap bins. A lot of leather stores have bins of remnants that will work for small projects. (Tandy's remnant bins are usually not worth buying from, but Hide House has a pretty good scrap collection).

Use salvaged leather. Thrift store handbags, coats, belts and other accessories can be a great source of chrome tanned leather scraps. Re-use centers like Scrap in San Francisco and Materials for the Arts in New York also sometimes have leather, and home and auto upholsterers may have scraps they are willing to part with.

Check fabric stores. A lot of fabric stores (like Fabric Outlet and Discount Fabric in SF) carry some leather in smaller sizes, though it is often thin garment weight, which we aren't using in this class.


Common Types of Chrome Tanned Leather

Since we'll be working with chrome tanned leather and there are so many different kinds, it will be useful for you to know a little more about some of the most common varieties.


Garment Weight leather is thin and supple enough to be sewn into clothing. Usually between 1 oz to 3 oz, and most commonly lamb, goat, pig, deerskin, or cowhide that has been thinned. It is most often sewn with a sewing machine, not worked by hand. We will not be using garment weight leather in this class.


Upholstery leather is mostly used on furniture but is also a good choice for accessories and heavy duty leather clothing. Thicker and more durable than garment weight, but can still be sewn with industrial sewing machines. Usually cowhide between 3 oz and 4 oz. A good choice for the bag project in this class.


Latigo leather is much stiffer than upholstery leather and is usually used for belts, straps harnesses, etc. Latigo is combination tanned, first chrome, and then veg tanned. It is available anywhere from 4-10 oz. A thinner latigo is a good choice for the wallet project in this class.


Suede is leather which has been textured to be soft and "fuzzy" on both sides instead of having a distinct grain and flesh side. Suede is usually garment weight, around 1 to 4 oz, and is mostly used for clothing and footwear.


Embossed or Printed leather has been stamped to create an overall texture effect like an artificial reptile hide. Often finished with a very artificial, almost plastic looking coating, but can also be textured veg tanned leather. Usually fairly stiff for its weight which makes it great for sculptural projects, or for the wallet project in this class.


Metallic leather has been embossed with a metallic foil grain to give it a very shiny, metal-like, appearance. metallic leather comes in all kinds of weights, and can add a very unique look to leather projects.


A Little About Your Instructor

I am a costume and experimental fashion designer and artist by training... and, yes, also a huge nerd who likes to wear a lot of silly costumes :)

I studied Visual Art at Brown University and Fashion Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and since then I've done my best to turn playing dress-up into a career. I have worked in both the costume and fashion design industries, and right now I'm lucky enough to have a job in the Instructables Design Studio where I make a lot of fun things with creative people in an amazing maker space.

In my work I love experimenting with materials and finding new ways to use traditional techniques in my never-ending quest to create clothing and accessories worthy of time traveling cyborg superheroes! Leather is one of my favorite materials, and a staple of my design work, from traditional hand-work techniques to leather laser cutting. Most of my creative skills were learned through traditional schooling, but I am mostly a self-taught leatherworker, so I can attest that it is absolutely possible to learn leatherwork from an online class.

You can see many examples of my work on my website, and find all the tutorials I've created so far on my Instructables page.


Quiz

{
    "id": "quiz-1",
    "question": "What kind of leather are we using in this class?",
    "answers": [
        {
            "title": "Veg Tanned",
            "correct": false
        },
        {
            "title": "Chrome Tanned",
            "correct": true
        }
    ],
    "correctNotice": "Yes!",
    "incorrectNotice": "Nope. Try Again"
}
{
    "id": "quiz-2",
    "question": "What percentage of leather produced today is chrome tanned?",
    "answers": [
        {
            "title": "15%",
            "correct": false
        },
 {
            "title": "55%",
            "correct": false
        },
        {
            "title": "85%",
            "correct": true
        }
    ],
    "correctNotice": "Yes!",
    "incorrectNotice": "Sorry. Try Again"
}
{
    "id": "quiz-3",
    "question": "True or False: Only mammals have skin that can be turned into leather.",
    "answers": [
        {
            "title": "True",
            "correct": false
        },
 {
            "title": "False",
            "correct": true
        }
     
    ],
    "correctNotice": "Yes! Almost any animal hide can be turned into leather including the skin of many reptiles, amphibians and fish!",
    "incorrectNotice": "Nope, guess again."
}

CLASS PROJECT

Share a photo of your finished project with the class!

Nice work! You've completed the class project