Monday, April 14, 2014

The Poison in Your Purse



All too often when I am at the studio my son finds a little piece of scrap leather to chew on, and I let him do it.  I use vegetable tanned leather so there’s nothing in it – no pigments, no dyes, no artificial softeners – it’s just cow skin and tree bark. If I were using chromium tanned leather, however, this would be different.  Chromium tanned leather is commonly used in handbags, shoes, jackets, upholstery and other garments and accessories. 

Why would it be different with chromium tanned leather? Well, because chromium tanned leather can contain lead. 

Lead white was being produced by the 4th century BC and was a common ingredient in house paint in the 20th century.  Among the benefits of lead-based paint are reduced drying time, more vibrant colors, better coverage, and stabilization of the paint formula.  The risks, however, if the lead is ingested are horrible.  Lead is a neurotoxin and can, among other problems, cause damage to the brain, nervous system, stomach and kidneys.  It can also cause reproductive problems in adults.  Recognizing he US banned lead from house paint in 1978 but this does not mean it is gone from all paints, and certainly does not mean it is gone from paint in all countries.

In a day and age where many of the products that we have in our homes do not come from domestic sources.  In 2007 Mattel issued a nine million item toy recall for lead based paint and small magnet hazards. We’ve become more vigilant in testing children’s products for lead paint, thanks in part to the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) of 2008, but the CPSIA will not protect your child from lead in leather.

Why? Because babies don’t just play with baby toys. As my son reminds me every time he picks up a piece of scrap leather, my keys, wallet, cell phone, or other non-toy item to chew on, some kids just like to stick things in their mouth.  The lack of testing standards for lead exposure in leather goods means that you can find lead levels up to 195 times the federal limit for children’s toys in your wallet.  You don’t want your kid even touching your wallet in this case, since lead can leach onto the skin, let alone putting it in his mouth.  And, if you’re of child-bearing age, you don’t want to touch it either since it can cause fertility problems.

There is also no CPSIA requirement for leather testing.  Despite ABC’s report on the lead hazards in purses, the CPSIA lists leather as an exempt material:

Title 16 §1500.91 (d) The following materials do not exceed the lead content limits under section 101(a) of the CPSIA provided that these materials have neither been treated or adulterated with the addition of materials that could result in the addition of lead into the product or material:

(d) (8) Other plant-derived and animal-derived materials including, but not limited to, animal glue, bee's wax, seeds, nut shells, flowers, bone, sea shell, coral, amber, feathers, fur, leather.

The current federal limit is 100ppm in children’s goods (toys and clothing) but without testing, how in the world would you know if those cute leather booties are safe for your child?  When their feet sweat, will the lead in those gorgeous leather colors leach onto your little one’s foot and into their skin?  Will they take that bootie off when they are in the backseat of the car and put it into their mouth while you’re driving down the freeway?

The truth is, you don’t know.  A few major retailers have had their bags tested as a result of the work of the Center for Environmental Health (CEH), but not four months ago the CEH posted a warning to avoid purses and belts from several retailers over the holidays as they still are not meeting the safety standards.  Lead contaminants have also been found in shoes and leather upholstery.

But I need a purse! Yes, probably true.  Well, don’t go running to a synthetic alternative to avoid the lead in leather problem.  Studies found lead in faux-leather handbags, too. So here’s what you can do:

* Avoid chromium tanned, or garment, leathers.  Instead opt for vegetable tanned leather (like the ones from

* If you were carrying a vinyl or faux-leather bag and want to stay away from real leather, consider canvas or another fabric instead. 

* If you really love that chromium tanned leather handbag, buy a lead testing kit.

The other thing to remember is that lead is a cumulative poison. What is in your handbag, belt, or shoes now probably won’t kill you, but your body doesn’t get rid of lead as quickly as it takes it in, so minimizing exposure whenever possible is the preferred course of action.

The potential of lead poisoning from chrome tanned leather – working with, touching, wearing, etc., – isn’t why I decided to work with vegetable tanned leather initially.  These dangers were not even in the news until 2007, three years after I started working with leather.  My reasoning was simple: the idea of trying to burn a pattern into a pre-finished, pre-dyed, leather when I have no idea what is in the dye is disgusting at a minimum.  Potentially deadly.

Vegetable tanned leather is a natural material – no dyes, not finishes, just hide and tree bark.  I add the colors with water or alcohol based dyes, and an acrylic topcoat. It doesn’t require special protection, ventilation, or caution to use these dyes. There are no warnings or MSDS sheets.

And, my baby can safely be in the studio with me.  He can touch the leather, and I don’t have to worry about him getting lead poisoning.

Be safe!


*The photo above is an old vinyl/pleather “Stewardess” bag.  I used it as the model for my handmade, vegetable-tanned leather, Travel Bag collection.  All of the pieces at are lead-free, of course!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Logo Love


delta theta frontdelta theta backking concrete frontking concrete back

I get many requests for logo work.  Here are a few examples – the top one of a custom Delta Theta Sigma Key Chain, the bottom of a Money Clip for King Concrete.

Yes, I can do your logo, too!  Send me an email – caitlin at moxieandoliver dot com - with your request.



Monday, April 7, 2014

Customer Questions: Leather Colors



Q: How do you color/paint/dye(??) the designs onto the leather?

A: It always makes me laugh when people say “Do you have any of the Antique Black leather left?”  or “Do you have any blue leather?”

It’s a reasonable enough question, right?  Most commercial leather is chromium tanned and color is added to the leather during the tanning process.  The leather that I use is vegetable tanned – no artificial colors (or flavors) added!  So, I laugh when people ask me if I have a specific color of leather because all my leather is the same color.  That is, until I dye it.

I will cover exact techniques in step-by-step in my leathercraft book (to be published by F+W Media in 2015), but here’s a quick explanation of how the pattern gets on most of my pieces.


First I sketch the pattern onto the leather, all freehand, then I burn it in using a branding iron.  The next step is paint – I use a water-based leather paint and craft store brushes (if you follow me on Instagram or Facebook, you’ll know I take horrible care of my brushes so cheap ones are better!).


After the piece is painted I apply a dye to the entire leather.  My favorites are the Gel Antique Stains, since they allow the colors of the paint to show through without muddying them.  Then I apply a topcoat to keep them colorfast. And, voila!



Finished, colorfast, bad-ass Scarlet Leather and Stainless Steel Flask.  Cow skull, roses. Handmade in the USA.  Available at

Happy crafting!


Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Customer Questions: Leather Types


Q: What is your favorite type of leather to work with and why?

So apparently it’s time for me to come clean.  I know a bit about different types of leathers – I see them, wear them, touch them, love them –- but I’ve only worked with one type of leather, and it’s vegetable tanned tooling leather.  When I started working with leather my goal was to make a belt that had artwork on it, and really the most suitable leather for putting artwork on is vegetable tanned leather.

Unlike chrome tanned or other leathers, the vegetable tanned leather doesn’t have color added during the tanning process (or by the tannery after), and it isn’t softened.  While technically it’s not “raw” leather (rawhide is raw leather, meaning it is untanned) vegetable tanned leather seems to me to be as close to natural leather as you can get.

The advantage of buying a leather that doesn’t have any color added to it during the tanning process is that you can add color and pattern yourself.  I brand and carve my leather, then paint it and dye it.  In the photos above, you can see the raw leather with branding and painting on it.  The dye is added after it is painted.

The patterns and colors that I put on the leather, because it starts out so raw/natural, are permanent.  They won’t rub off or wear down over time.  Adding color or pattern to a chromium tanned leather (the traditional garment leathers) doesn’t work so well – you can’t brand it since the leather has dye and finish already in it, and these would smell terrible if you burned them.  You can’t carve it since the leather is thinner and stretches, and any paint is going on over the finish of the leather so it won’t stick nearly as well. Chromium tanned leathers are best left the way they are and cut and stitched into something.

I could probably cite a number of reasons why I choose vegetable tanned leather but when it all comes down to it, I think what really sets the Moxie & Oliver handmade leather line apart from others on the market is the artwork.  Since vegetable tanned leather is the best leather for artwork, it’s the best leather for me!