My story in leather crafting
My introduction to leatherworking began with several pairs of nobbly sad handmade shoes. I was acting as costume designer and creator for a group of indie filmmakers creating a medieval era film.
I had briefly worked with leather in the past, but never any large pieces, and never something that was intended to look somewhat historical.
Looking back I can grin at my attempts. I began by using a leather intended for glove making. Trying to make a nice pair of shoes from lightweight leather is like trying to make blackberry jam out of blueberries. I wasn’t gonna make it happen.
I used the soft pliable leather to create several costume pieces for that film. The process was eye-opening and I learned a lot about how the leather responded, how to handle it.
My desire to create a decent pair of leather shoes led me to find Laughing Crowes turn shoemaking video course and his other leather shoemaking courses. I took the turn shoe course and went through the process of making several pairs of leather shoes. This time working with leather that was better suited to footwear construction.
Throughout these projects, my leather tool collection had begun to grow and I found myself with a layout of the basic tools for leathercraft.
The following film project leads to the creation of a leather-bound journal with a dainty tooled pattern of flowering vines and leaves. The journal needed to be hand-bound. I did the binding and tooled the cover. Using a leather carving tool and a few different leather stamps I created the floral pattern. I then stained the leather and painted the flowers and leaves with leather acrylic paint. Finally, I did a coating of leather sealer to finish it off.
My journey in leather crafting took another interesting twist when I attended a survival skill retreat in Arizona. I joined a brain tanning class for the week. Brain tanning is a term used to describe a specific way that artisans treat the leather to take it from the skin of an animal into a pliable, craft-able piece of material.
Over the course of a week, the instructor taught how to take a deer hide, soak it in a lye solution and then begin to scrape the flesh and hair from the surface of the hide. After scraping all the hair and upper layer of the dermis from one side of the hide and all the remnants of flesh left after being skinned off the animal from the other side of the hide we then soaked it in a “brain” solution.
In our case, we learned the process using a safer method of a mix of emulsified oils, rather than actual animal brain.
The oils soak into the fibers of the hide and begin to break down the glue-like proteins in the hide. The next step is to soften and stretch the hide until dry. This is done by continuously stretching the hide altering the direction after each pull. Once dry the hide is then soaked in the solution of “brains” again and processed through stretching again, or it is softened even more using friction and a hard surface to loosen rough patches in the hide.
The final step after reaching the point of softness desired was to smoke the hide. Our instructor set up a smoker and a vent to place the hides over and we sat and allowed them to slowly smoke to cure them. Smoking causes a chemical reaction in the hide so that if it gets wet it will dry and remain soft and pliable. If the hide got wet and wasn’t smoked it would become hard and brittle.
The process of learning to tan hides was fascinating.
The material I ended up with was a piece of tan buckskin. A soft, thin, pliable piece of deer hide that can be used for garments and other lightweight projects.
Leather tanning takes a skilled craftsperson and the process is different depending on the desired outcome. My instructor was able to teach both the process and the theory behind each step, which gave me a fuller understanding of what I was doing.
I continue to learn new techniques and skills, growing my leather crafting repertoire. I hope you join me in the process of working with this ancient and fascinating material.