Back in February exciting news came through from one of our customers Gaynor Howell who runs Leather Courses Britain.The Guardian had seen their courses on the CraftCourses website and wanted to send a journalist on the leather bag making course. Did I want to join them? Did I ever!
Now, I grew up working in my parents’ craft business, The Rocking Horse Shop, now run by Jane Cook. Some of my happiest childhood memories are of times in the leather-workshop, where amidst heaps of rocking horse saddles and bridles, Dad would sometimes show me how to make belts, dog leads and collars for my friends (furry or otherwise) and later on, the odd hand-bag.
Conveniently based just 10 miles from where I work in the CraftCourses office, Gaynor's leather-workshop is in a beautiful old Methodist chapel in the village of Penfordd.
Having met the Guardian journalist Hannah Booth on arrival (pictured here with Gaynor), we quickly realised that we were both exactly 28 weeks pregnant! After a nice cuppa, we lingered over the three choices of bag design; Messenger, Satchel or Tote. Hannah chose the Tote bag whilst I decided on the Messenger bag, in red with havana straps. It is the perfect size for me; just enough for an A4 folder but not so big I would be tempted to cart the kitchen sink around!
Cutting out and prep…
We cut out the patterns grain side up, as opposed to the ‘flesh’ side, avoiding diagonal cuts, as this can lead to warping of the bag shape at a later date. The bag shapes were cut out by hand using Stanley knives, metal rulers and an array of heavy metal weights to keep the hide in place.
Once this was done, it was time to prepare the seams for stitching. We scored the edges of the bag, marking where each stitch would be with a tool called a ‘divider’, a bit like a heavy weight compass. The edge seams were further scored with a tool called a ‘race’, then moistened to soften and folded using a ruler and the chillingly named ‘bone folder’.
It was quite a lot of fun just getting ones lips around these quirky tool-names!
As Gaynor explained, ’bridle butt’ is the strongest part of the hide, and never stretches, so the bag handles are made out of this, whilst the main body of the bag is made from shoulder of hide. Gaynor uses only ‘vegetable tanned’ leather, which uses natural rather than chemical processes in the tanning process. Most leather products we see for sale are ‘chrome tanned’ which gives a softer, more malleable product. The vegetable tanning process is slower but the leather retains its strength and is the most suitable for hand-stitched products, as our bags would be.
We glued the edges on both sides and left them to dry for ten minutes to become tacky, before pressing the edges together and using stationary clamps to hold them in place.
Learning how to hand stitch leather…
After lunch break, which was spent around the wood stove, Gaynor began to teach us the rudiments of leather hand stitching, something I have wanted to try ever since I watched it being done on rocking horse bridles as a girl. We started on a practise piece of black leather using white thread first, as Gaynor told us this would best show up the straightness of the stitching and demonstrate the importance of angle and consistency in threading and tightening.
For hand stitching the main tools are; an awl, two leather needles, waxed thread (we waxed it ourselves using blocks and cloth), and a clam, which sits on the floor and is held in place by the legs. The awl is used to puncture the leather before placing the stitches. The morning’s painstaking work of folding, scoring and marking was essential.
Once we got going hand-stitching our bags, the afternoon flew by. It’s just an incredibly relaxing thing to do! Suddenly it was 5 o clock and I’d been happily concentrating for hours. I slept well that night creating row upon row of neat stitches in my leather filled dreams.
The next morning was the first major frost of the winter and en route to the course I managed to skid my car half way down a very steep hill at Llanycefn, where there is a Steiner school, so Gaynor’s husband Gary kindly drove out to rescue me from the hedge where I had skidded into. (Thank you again for that Gary!)
I warmed up by the stove and got straight back on with the stitching, which was all too quickly completed.
The final touches… and two very happy pregnant ladies
I moved on to cutting out the thick bridle butt straps, punching holes to attach and adjusting the strap of my bag, using a keyhole shaped tool called a Sam Browne hole punch.
The last part of the project was creating a leather CraftCourses label to sit proud on the front of my bag. For this I used Gaynor’s beautiful old brass engraving letters, some glue and a couple of rivets.
A quick polish and the bag was done. It was a superb couple of days and I can’t wait to practise the skills again on my next leather project. One of the best things about completing a craft course or workshop is being able to say ‘I made that’. Months down the line and I am still using my red hand bag every day and it only looks better with age - unlike me!