Friday, January 30, 2015

The History of Leathercraft - PART ONE

This article duo is inspired by a chapter from my book, LeatherCrafted: A Simple Guide to Creating Unconventional Leather Goods. Enjoy!

For many of us the art of working with, and of tanning leather is a beautiful mystery.  While not terribly complex, it is a process that has been developed, perfected, and implemented by hardworking humans and craftspeople over thousands of years.

As far back as 20,000 BC, humans used leather – at least as clothing – as we know from cave pictographs. We cannot be sure if they knew how to tan or treat it back then, because references to tanning are not seen until 8,000 BC. The earliest tanners would scrape the hair off of the hide before treating it with brains or urine for preservation and softness. Because of their early efforts, we actually have leather artifacts that date from 4,000 BC. The oldest leather shoe dates to about 3,500 BC.

The tanning process remained relatively the same for several thousand years. Different civilizations would use different substances – such as brains, dung from dogs and pigeons, urine, salt, alkaline lime, and fat. In the ancient town of Pompeii, we know they gathered urine for tanning and bleaching from public urinals – the ruins from the town (covered by the volcano Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD) offer a peek at one of the world’s oldest tanneries.

Vegetable Tanning, which is the process we use in crafting Moxie & Oliver products, was discovered around 2,000 BC. It was also known as bark tanning, since it preserves the leather with tree bark tannins. Although the result was a lovely, smooth and durable leather that was ideal for tooling and embellishments, the process takes upwards of a month from start to finish.

During the Middle Ages crafters began adding decorations and embellishments, and tooling the material by pounding a stamp into the leather to create a relief pattern. The Moors were known for beautifully tooled leather saddles, which made their way to the New World in the mid-1500s with Hernando Cortez and the Conquistadors. 

For those in Europe and in the colonies leather was a necessary material for every-day life. Shoes, horse gear, accessories, books, blacksmithing equipment and even coaches required leather. Vegetable tanning was brought to the colonies and the first tanneries were set up – the crafts involving tanning and use of leather flourished until the industrial revolution.

In the early 1800s the Industrial Revolution dramatically changed the way people both made and consumed goods.  With advances in machinery all goods, leather included, could be made more quickly and at a lower price.  They could be manufactured – and consumers could, and did purchase a higher quantity of goods, even though they were at a lower quality than their handmade predecessors.  
Around this same time “chromium tanning” was invented in the medical community. This invention, or discovery, changed the leathercraft community irreversibly.  This new process created a leather that was soft, supple, stretchy, and perfectly suited for mass-manufacture.
However, it was toxic both in process and waste, and the resulting material could not be tooled, painted, sculpted, branded, or carved as vegetable-tanned leather could.

Time for a short break to let you process this information this far, feed your kids, and maybe grab a glass of wine. I will resume this brief history of leathercraft in just a couple of days!

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

I Quit.

I don't even know where to start.  That's my little guy - not even two years old yet - with his hand, forearm, and elbow in a cast.  For the next three weeks. 

We were at the studio yesterday morning and I was working at the die cutter.  Sharp blades, 25tons of pressure, and he was at my feet.  He's been in the studio with me since he was two weeks old.  The worst thing he's ever done was dye himself scarlet. 

In a split second he put his finger through two layers of safety grates and I heard the fan make a sound it's never made before.  I immediately picked him up, pulled his finger out, and found a little bloody mess.  I couldn't tell at the time but his nail on his index finger had been completely ripped out. 

I washed him up and put him in the car and drove him to the doctor.  He cried for a whopping three minutes - maximum. He cried a little  more when I got him out of the car at the doctor's office, but then just seemed interested in what in the world all these people were doing to his finger.  The doctor sent us to the ER, since apparently this requires stitches.

And the ER decided he needed surgery.  Sedation, two orthopedic surgeons, and three doctors. I swear all of them were younger than I am.  And they all declared that this little guy is the most chill baby ever.  He does not have the most chill mom ever, though.  For most of it I managed to hold myself together, until the guy that was there to take care of the emotional health of the parents and children came in and asked me how I was.  Then I lost it.

When surgery was done they said he did fine.  He woke up slowly (it was in the middle of nap when he woke up and he was honestly just tired) but then decided he was very hungry.  He hasn't seemed that bothered by the large bonking stick on his right hand, and is making the best of just having one hand to use to play with trains.  His reality changed yesterday, and he's going to function in the reality he has, rather than lamenting the one he may have had the day before.

I, on the other hand, am not adapting so well.  Yesterday was the closest I have ever come to quitting my "job" - I did not want to go to the studio. I did not want to see the die cutter. I did not want to use the die cutter. I did not want to do anything other than to spend the rest of my life taking care of my children and making sure that something like this never happened again.  

But honestly, I know this kid.  He's just like I was when I was little.  He has to figure out how things work by testing them, and sometimes that hurts.  Yesterday it hurt.   When I got in this morning I was showing my mom how he managed to hurt himself, and I'm still shocked and surprised that it happened.  He put his finger through two layers of safety grates to get to this whirring fan, which ripped his nail out by the root.  Maybe it could have been worse, but maybe these holes could have been a little smaller, or the distance a little longer, and this wouldn't have happened at all.  Every time I'd looked at this part of the machine I thought it was safe - there were two layers of grates with a space between. 

As much as I can rationalize my self-blame away about the specifics of this incident, I think as a parent no matter what happens to our children we will always blame ourselves on some level.  Even if they are in someone else's care - we shouldn't have left them with so-and-so, or we should have done this or that or the other thing differently.  There are always alternate ways that our days, our situations, our lives could have turned out, had we made different choices, but we made these choices, and this is the life we ended up with.

In that sense I know I need to take a note from my son - so you wake up one morning with a big hard bonking stick on your right hand.  Use your left.  That's why you have two.

I did go to the studio today, and worked.  We have a show coming up next month and I need to prepare.  It was sad to see his little train set scattered around the studio floor, just as he had left it. The cracker he had been eating by my feet was in the bathroom on the floor, where he'd dropped it when I washed his hands.  Over the weekend my husband and kids had all been in the studio with me for a few hours, and it filled my heart and my space with love and joy.  Having my kids and my family in my studio brings the things and the people I love together, and the saddest part of this for me is the idea that I may no longer be able to bring my son to the studio with me.  I can take precautions to make sure he doesn't do this again - and I am pretty sure he learned, and he won't put his finger in that particular hole again - but how do I keep him safe?  How do I keep him safe anywhere?
Ultimately I can't, and I know that, because a curious little kid can make big trouble in a matter of seconds.  The best I can do is warn him of the dangers I can see, prevent the dangers I can avoid, and take care of him when he gets hurt by something we couldn't predict or prevent.  He is resilient, and with love and good medicine he will be as good as new in no time.  I just hope we can say the same for mommy's broken heart. 

Oh, and did I mention I got hit by a car last night after we got home?  Yep.  That happened, too.  I don't think I was ever so thankful that days start over every 24 hours. I needed a new one by the end of the night. 


Friday, January 9, 2015

Winter Class Schedule


Now that the madness of the holiday season is over, it's time do something creative and fun!  How about learning leathercraft?  I will be offering classes to help you get started, and I also offer private lessons if you want to take your craft in a specific direction and need more tailored instruction/guidance.  Here's the list of classes upcoming - if you don't see what you are looking for on the list, please feel free to email and we can create something just for you.

January 15, 2014 -- Small project workshop (5pm to 9pm)

January 24, 2015 --  Intro to Leathercraft,  full day workshop (9am to 5pm)

February 7, 2015 - Intro to Leathecraft, full-day workshop (9am to 5pm)

February 11, 2015 - Small Project workshop (5pm to 9pm)

February 28, 2015 - Intro to Leathercraft, full-day workshop (9am to 5pm)  SPACE AVAILABLE

March 11, 2015 - Small project workshop (5pm-9pm)

March 14-15, 2015 - Handbag workshop, two full days (9am to 4pm each day)  SPACE AVAILABLE

March 21, 2015 - Small project workshop (1pm-5pm)  SPACE AVAILABLE

March 28, 2015 - Intro to Leathercraft, full day workshop (9am to 5pm)

Small Project Workshop - This four-hour workshop is ideal for anyone who has a small item they would like to make out of leather, and needs a little help to get started.  Participants will have the option of creating a smartphone case, cuff/watch, belt, small wallet or flask.  All tools and materials provided and participants will go home with a finished piece. ($175)

Intro to Leathercraft - This full-day workshop is a little more intensive and participants have the option of creating a larger, and more complicated, piece than in the half-day workshop. Participants will learn about tools and materials used in leathercraft including pattern making, pyrography (branding), carving, dyeing,  finishing, hand-sewing and adding basic hardware.  Participants will have their choice of project including several small bag/clutch patterns from our original patterns. Each participant will go home with a finished project. ($350)

Handbag Workshop - During this two-day workshop participants will design and create their own vegetable tanned leather handbag.  No prior experience is necessary, and each student will learn the basics of leathercraft including pattern making and design.  Students are encouraged to bring sketches and ideas, and I will walk them through the pattern making process in addition to teaching the skills of our Intro to Leathecraft class. ($750)