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  • Writer's picturePeter Smith

The Tradition and Modernity of Leather Craft: A Craftsman's Perspective

In the realm of leather craft, the interplay between tradition and modernity is not merely a topic of discussion—it's a reality that shapes every artisan's approach. As someone who has dedicated years to this craft, I've seen firsthand how these two forces converge, diverge, and ultimately coexist in the world of leather work.


The Bedrock of Tradition

Leather craft, at its core, is rooted in tradition. Historically, leather has been a staple material for various purposes, from clothing to tools and accessories, from functional use to fashion.


The techniques used by craftsmen of old, from tanning to tooling, have been passed down through generations, each adding their nuances but maintaining the foundational practices.


One cannot discuss traditional leather craft without acknowledging the importance of hand tools, like awls, punches, and mallets that have remained largely unchanged over the years. These tools, when used with skill, precision and experience, allow craftsmen to manipulate leather, creating intricate patterns, durable stitches, and functional designs.


Moreover, the types of leather preferred for traditional crafts often differ from those used in modern contexts. Full-grain leathers, with their natural markings and rugged durability, have long been favoured for their longevity and character. The patina they develop over time tells a story, reflecting the life and experiences of the item's owner.


Embracing Modern Innovations

While tradition provides the foundation, modernity introduces innovations that both challenge and complement the established norms of leather craft. Advancements in technology, materials, and design have opened up new possibilities, pushing the boundaries of what can be achieved with leather.


One of the most significant shifts in modern leather craft is the introduction of machinery. While hand tools remain essential, machines have enabled craftsmen to streamline certain processes, increasing efficiency without compromising on quality. From cutting to stitching, these machines can handle large volumes of work, allowing craftsmen to take on diverse projects and meet contemporary demands.


Additionally, the range of materials available to modern craftsmen has expanded considerably. While traditional leathers like full-grain remain popular, other options, such as bonded leather and synthetic blends, offer unique characteristics and advantages. These materials, when used judiciously, can enhance a product's performance, aesthetics, or both.


Furthermore, modern design principles have influenced the aesthetics and functionality of leather goods. Sleeker designs, innovative closures, and integrated technologies are just a few examples of how contemporary sensibilities are shaping the leather craft landscape. These designs, while distinct from traditional styles, reflect the evolving tastes and lifestyles of today's consumers.


Some articles just don't suit stitching by hand, like this example below. However, the 'intrecciato' design is modern.


An Intrecciato shirt made leather.
Intrecciato Leather Shirt. Hand made and machine stitched.

Striking a Balance

For craftsmen navigating this dynamic landscape, striking a balance between tradition and modernity is crucial. While it's essential to honour and preserve traditional techniques and values, it's equally important to remain adaptable and open to new ideas and approaches.


In my own practice, I've found that embracing modern innovations doesn't diminish the craft's essence; rather, it enriches it. By integrating new techniques, materials, and design elements, I've been able to expand my repertoire, taking on diverse projects and catering to a broader audience.


There are times for example, when I prefer hand stitching versus machine stitching. This depends on the article I am creating (or mending). Machine stitching is of course, neat and consistent, whereas hand stitching will yield that 'hand-crafted' look, which is sought after in period pieces for example.


This integration doesn't come without its challenges. Navigating the complexities of modern materials and technologies requires a willingness to learn, adapt, and sometimes, unlearn established practices. It's a continuous process of evolution, one that demands both patience and perseverance.



Articles such as this period barrel bag below suit hand stitching.

Hand made leather barrel bag with brass fittings.
Hand made leather barrel bag with brass fittings.

What would you do?

These guitar straps are examples of some work I have done, entirely by hand. There are two layers of leather stitched together. There are over 600 stitches to make these straps.


So, what would you do if you wanted to make these? The answer lies in the balance. If a client commissions a guitar strap, I will hand stitch. If I want to produce many straps to stock in a shop, I will use my sewing machine.


Hand dyed, stitched and tooled leather guitar straps. In these examples, I can use all traditional methods, or I can blend between traditional and machine.


Tooled, dyed and stitched by hand, leather guitar straps.

Tooled, dyed and stitched by hand, leather guitar straps.


Conclusion

The tradition and modernity of leather craft are not opposing forces but complementary aspects of a vibrant and evolving craft. While tradition provides the foundation and continuity, modernity introduces innovation and diversity, pushing the boundaries and expanding the possibilities.


As leather crafts people, our role is to navigate this dynamic landscape with respect, skill, and creativity. By embracing both the timeless techniques of the past and the innovative practices of the present, we can create leather goods that resonate with authenticity, quality, and relevance. In doing so, we ensure that the legacy of leather craft continues to thrive, inspiring future generations of crafts people and enthusiasts alike.

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