Home > Craft Topics > Craft Introductions > Leather
The beauty and versatility of leather, which can be as hard as wood or have the delicacy and sensuality of silk, makes it an inspiring material to work with. It may be left natural or dyed in jewel - like colours to make useful items such as bags, hats and belts.
As leather is not only attractive but durable and waterproof too, it has many practical uses. In fact, leatherwork is one of the oldest crafts and retains its popularity despite mechanization and the invention of plastics.
Pre-historic people used animal skins for clothing so the history of leatherwork goes back as far as that of mankind. The first attempts of treating leather to make it supple and durable included smoking the hides then rubbing them with fat. The great breakthrough for the craft came, however, with the discovery of tanning - the process in which leather is treated so that it does not rot or dry out.
Tannin comes from the back of certain trees such as oak. By soaking the leather in water with the bark it becomes tanned and durable. In the middle ages every village had it own tannery and the same process is still used today.
According to legend, king Alfred was responsible for organizing the craft of leatherwork in England. He decided that the sandals his army wore were inadequate for marching, so he brought together a group of leatherworkers in Northampton to make them new footwear. Today Northampton is still the centre of the shoe making industry.
These craftspeople were called 'cordwainers' because they used the finest leather, imported in those days from Cordova in Spain. The name is still sometimes used to describe leatherworkers. As well as shoes, 'cordwainers' also made the fine gloves that can often be seen in medieval tapestries and which ladies gave to their favourite knights.
In the middle ages the technique known as 'cuir bouilli', which is still used today, was invented. It was used for making large leather objects such as helmets or the medieval jugs known as bombards.
The method involves wetting the leather and then moulding it over a wooden shape or 'former'. Once it has set the leather is dipped in scalding water and dried quickly as possible to give it a wood-hard finish. This process seems easy but practise is needed to judge the right speed for drying and the best temperature for dipping.
Towards the end of the 19th century a new process known as chrome tanning in which leather was prepared with chromium salts was introduced. This method has the advantage that it does not require trees to be felled. And leather treated in this way can take the bright colours popular for belts, hats and jewellery. However, the leather is less supple and tends not to be so long-lasting.
Most leatherworkers prefer to work with vegetable-tanned leather, bear in mind that it darkens and acquires a sheen with age. On a small piece such as a purse or a wallet, the grain of the leather is very noticeable and gives an interesting textural effect. As different hides have varying textures, the first stage of making a piece may involve rolling the leather to bring up the grain in it. Very soft, smooth leather is bought ready glazed.
After a natural leather item is finished it can be dyed using aniline or special leather dyes. To stop the dyes from changing colour a thin coat of shellac varnish may be used as a sealant. This method is most useful for giving an aged effect to new leather.
A method called tooling is used to carve or press a design onto leather. The commonly used process of plain or 'blind' tooling, for example, involves hammering a stamping tool with a decorative design on to moistened leather. An impression remains after the leather dries.
This stamp pattern can be further decorated with gold. Although gilding is a craft in its own right, it is easy to pick out a detail of the design with a small amount of gold leaf. It is also possible to paint leather freehand with an artist's brush and special paints; this technique works best on coloured leather.
Knowing how to look after a finished leather item is just as important as knowing how to make it. Leather must be regularly cleaned and waxed, and this is just as much part of the craft. Many professional leatherworkers offer a 'nursing' service and will treat, repair and restore the work as the need arises.
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