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How NOT to get started in leatherworking. Well, maybe.

Updated: Apr 11

So: perhaps you're interested in learning how to do leatherworking. However, the vast amount of information out there is dizzying--

  • What kinds of leather are there?

  • Which kind is used for what purpose?

  • Am I harming the environment by picking this up as a new hobby or eventual business?

  • Which parts of the animal does leather come from?

  • Is there even such a thing as ethical consumption in a capitalist economic model?

--and so many more questions, I'm sure.

In this article I'll begin to outline the above in what will eventually become a series of posts on leatherworking. I hope you'll find them entertaining and above all, useful.

Story time!

When I first got started with leatherworking, I had no idea what the differences were between, well, any of it. I just jumped right in and tried to make something that I saw on Etsy:

I mean, come on. This quiver is freaking gorgeous (also seriously: if you love this, go support her shop!). Who wouldn't want to rock that aesthetic, amirite?

I instantly fell in love with Iliana's work and wanted more than anything to be able to create this kind of artistry. Foolishly, I thought: Surely I can make this (that hurt just typing it and I've actually ordered one from her shop since).

In reality:

Here's the thing: getting started in leatherwork can have significant upfront investment if you don't know what you're doing and are super impulsive (like me!). However, I had decided: I would make the thing, and then I would make many other things in order to justify the investment in tools and materials. Fortunately for me, I fell in love with the craft and found myself wanting to do this full-time.

What I Learned from My First Project

Imitation is, as the saying goes, the sincerest form of flattery. By trying to re-create something that's already out there, one can learn a lot. In my case, I learned a few things:

  1. Quivers are better if they are narrower at the top. Once I tried wearing this on my back, I discovered the opening was way too wide and I couldn't reach my arrows. Neat.

  2. Leather painting is fun!

  3. Setting double-cap rivets with a tiny anvil was actually kind of difficult. They shifted all over the place and once actually set in place, they didn't look great (post height matters, as it turns out).

I mean, it's kinda close. If anything, I'm proud for learning how to at least paint the thing.

The other thing I learned is that--surprise!--there are different kinds of leather for different purposes. How did I learn this? I tried tooling my leather and...nothing happened. There are teeny-tiny cuts all through the design where I had tried following various guides out there and ultimately I ended up with something flat, and worse, the points where lines meet kind of peel up a bit.

So what went wrong? Basically, I misjudged the materials from which to make the quiver. I had a fundamental lack of understanding around the different types of tannage -- vegetable tanned and chrome tanned (or oil-tanned, in my case).

  1. Veg tan is a natural process by which hides (typically cow) are processed using plant tannins. This process takes about six weeks for a tannery to complete, from receipt of the scraped hides to a completed product. The result is a (typically) firm leather that can be stamped and carved to create some pretty awesome designs. Over time, it will also develop a rich patina--leather is skin, after all, and will darken when exposed to the sun for a long time. Additionally, its patina is unique to the wearer as the oils in one's hands and their environment also contribute to the item's appearance.

  2. Oil tan is a variation on chrome-tanned leather. Chrome tan gets its name due to the synthetic chemicals which are used in the tanning process. The result is that it takes a matter of hours to tan a hide using chromium salts, but there's a tradeoff in potential negative impact to the environment precisely because of the chemicals used, and the leather itself has a strong chemical smell. This aside, chrome tan is resilient, water-resistant, and when a hide is oil-tanned it is heated up and then impregnated with oil further lending to the aforementioned qualities. In addition, the hide is oftentimes much softer than veg tan leather (milled veg tan being the exception here). It's great for boots, bags, and has been a staple of the fashion industry since the mid-19th century.

Final Thoughts

At the time, I was most concerned with a) making something functional, and b) learning how to paint like she did. In retrospect, I probably could have started with something a little more accessible as a first project.

I also have to admit it felt kind of squidgy borrowing an idea from another artisan. So much so, in fact, the photo of the quiver I made is something I hadn't really uploaded anywhere until now. Sure, it's how we learn but in reality, there are many other ways to accomplish that than the path I chose.

One of the ways I intend to contribute back to the community is to create patterns you can print at home and start creating your dream item, without having to do what I did. As soon as I learn how to do that, I'll update this site as well as my Etsy shop.

Thanks for reading and keep creating!


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1 Comment

Stefanie Nichols
Stefanie Nichols
Jan 15

Thank you for sharing!

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