Designing and Building Lasting, High-quality Leather Goods

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Designing and Building Lasting, High-quality Leather Goods

Fast fashion stores filled with cheap imported goods have shoppers replacing high-use leather items once, or sometimes twice a year. Tagged with fabricated designer brands and priced low enough so you can afford two each year, these items are typically made with poor quality materials and even poorer quality construction. To the typical American consumer this is just how it goes - nothing sticks around for very long. But for those who refuse to constantly throw money at items that should last, there is another way. With a combination of the right material choices and quality construction and manufacturing processes, these items can be made to last a lifetime, and at a price that is more than affordable when you consider you’ll only have to buy the item once.

 

Material

Material choice plays an enormous role in determining an item’s longevity. Weight (thickness), tanning process, and temper are some of the parameters by which leather can be defined, and each combination of these different variables can suit a specific project better than others. Different tanning processes yield varying stiffness leathers, some water resistant, others that take on water stains very easily. Heavier weight leathers tend to be firmer, where thinner leathers are typically softer, though this is not a hard and fast rule.

These properties must be considered in the design process or you will end up with a product that won’t last or won’t be used. For instance, building a tote bag with 12 oz. firm-tempered bridle leather, or belt from 1 oz. buttery-soft garment leather would be...unfortunate, leaving you with a tote that would be unnecessarily heavy and uncomfortable to carry, and a belt that may last only a couple of wears - if that. Most inexpensive wallets available today use “genuine leather”, “bonded leather”, or worse, may not even use leather at all (see: "vegan leather"). The differences between different grades of leather is an interesting topic, one that I will delve into in a future blog post, but look for full grain or top grain leather - these are the most durable leathers available.

 

Design & Construction

Designing the leather item to allow for the best construction methods is key in producing lasting products. Factors like stitch type and frequency, riveting, and edge finishing have an effect on an items longevity and ability to remain looking its best.

Hand-stitched items are typically sewn using waxed polycord (a thread that will not breakdown like organic threads, and resists water and stains) and a saddle stitch. Saddle stitching is time consuming and sometimes physically painful for the maker, but the result is a beautiful, exceptionally durable stitch. Making use of a long section of thread and two needles (one on each end), the craftsman puts each needle through the same hole (in opposite directions) on each stitch, effectively stitching the product twice, once from each side. The result is a stitch that snakes the thread through the holes in mirrored "S" shapes all along the seam. 

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This is a stitch that cannot be reproduced by a machine. It ensures that even if the thread breaks for some reason, the product will not disassemble on the spot - this is especially important for items with exposed stitching. Machine-stitched items can completely fall apart if the thread is broken anywhere along the seam, as each stitch relies heavily on the opposite thread to secure the layers.

Products made with lighter-weight leather should have higher stitch frequency using thinner thread, while items using heavier leather can last with fewer stitches per inch and a thicker thread.

Rivets, similar to those found on your favorite denim, can be used to reinforce areas expected to experience increased or heavier wear. Top-notch leather workers employ solid copper or brass rivets, these won’t rust and can develop a beautiful patina with use.

Copper rivets installed

Copper rivets installed

Proper edge finishing on some items can help keep them around for centuries. First, properly gluing edges and seams prior to stitching prevents the edges from separating and spreading out even after stitching. Sealing edges off with bees wax followed by burnishing can help keep water from penetrating the leather where it is most vulnerable - the edges. This process leaves you with a beautiful and durable edge.

 

A combination of all of these practices makes for a strong, beautiful, and long lasting item. Knowing what to look for when investing in handmade, quality leather items can help you identify products that you will be handing off to your children, and what will need to be replaced in short order.

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