Updated: Mar 10, 2021
In a craft filled with confusion, clarity is a luxury.
So let's start by clearing the confusion.
Defining fine leather goods, or luxury leather goods can be a challenge as this segment of leathercraft can be very subjective.
Many believe that what is classed as ‘fine’ or ‘luxury’ has to do with the materials used, i.e. exotic skins or more expensive mainstream leathers such as shell cordovan.
But finesse is more than just skin deep, it goes much, much further into a commodity more valuable than any exotic skin available: craftsmanship.
Luxury is attention to detail and skilled hand work combined with the finest materials, where price and time isn’t a primary consideration.
So if you are looking to expand your skill set and make fine leather goods, this guide will give you an idea of what to look out for and perhaps bring awareness to areas that you need to improve on.
Arguably one of the most important parts to consider when creating high end leather goods with a price tag to match.
A smooth edge brings a clean aesthetic and gives your product a completed look, especially when paired with a deep defined crease line.
There are three main ways to finish the edges of your leather goods, whether watch straps, wallets or bags.
They are the turned edge, the painted edge and the burnished edge.
Regardless of the method you choose to use, executed with skill, any method could be used in luxury goods.
But there is a hierarchy for these three main players due to the time used, the skill needed to proficiently perform the technique and the rarity of craftsmen available to do so.
Time used: Moderate/ High
Skill needed: High
Skill scarcity: High
Time used: High (3+ layers)
Skill needed: Moderate
Skill scarcity: Moderate/ Low
Time used: Low/ Moderate
Skill needed: Low/ Moderate
Skill scarcity: Low
Examples show a folded edge (1) a painted edge (2) and a burnished edge (3)
To learn these edge techniques, see video courses: 'The Turned Edge Passport Wallet', 'Techniques of the Edge Pt2' and'Techniques Of the Edge Pt 1'.
These findings are taken from experience where students in my workshop have been taught these methods.
The turned edge is by far the most challenging for students, but also the most satisfying when done correctly.
A burnished edge on the other hand, tends to provide immediate yet short lived gratification.
There is a definite correlation between the amount of effort put in and the pleasure gained when a skill is acquired. This is why the hardest skills are the most respected, and displays of such skills can demand higher prices in products.
Manipulating leather to create contours is one way to add complexity and interest.
A minimalist approach doesn’t always go hand in hand with luxury, much like the most expensive luxury watches are also some of the most complex timepieces on earth.
Examples: a raised belt (1) lambskin quilting (2) and a filled briefcase handle (3)
To learn these raised techniques, see video courses: 'The Made To Measure Switch Buckle Belt', 'Solid Leather Box Making' and 'The Bloomsbury Attache Case'.
The 3D effect is most definitely a crowd pleaser.
If you don’t believe me, make something with a raised effect and post a picture on Instagram, then check your likes.
Adding a ‘complication’ will provide an added element of interest which displays craftsmanship and the skill of the maker.
Decorative, angled hand stitching.
The ability for the craftsman to create consistent, neat hand stitches is a process that can take time and patience.
The sequence of movements, the variables of leather, what thread to use and how tight to pull the stitches are all honed through hours of meaningful practice.
One may be able to create fine stitches in a thick piece of firm leather, but when shapes change, and other variables are added, this is where the knowledge of hand stitching comes into play.
While flat braided polyester offers some forgiveness with stitching inconsistency, round cabled threads offer little mercy for the beginner. But arguably offers the most finesse, with decorative high angles synonymous with luxury goods over the past 100 years or more.
Decorative stitching on a solid leather box (1) alligator watch strap (2) and a pricking iron test (3)
To learn these stitching techniques, see video courses: 'Solid Leather Box Making', 'The Making Of Luxury Watch Straps' Pt1, 2, & 3, and 'The Techniques Of Hand Stitching'.
Dyed through leather / Low pigment leather.
As you would imagine, leather selection is vitally important for high quality luxury leather goods.
Leather that has been dyed through will not look so worn out after years of use as the dye has penetrated through the entire hide.
If you are unsure, ask your supplier for a small sample cut and inspect the cross section of leather for any signs of a light grain, especially in the centre.
Some leathers such as English bridle leather are traditionally only coated on the grain side by hand. But this means that a deep scratch or scuff can show the un-dyed leather underneath.
The corners of bags, piping and other areas of high wear will show the lighter un-dyed leather underneath much sooner.
So whether English bridle or any other type of leather, look for ‘struck through’ or dyed through leather for best results.
Wickett and Craig English bridle style leather. Dyed through with aniline dyes.
Leather selection is discussed in multiple video courses.
Highly pigmented or fully pigmented leather is another type of leather to be cautious of. Many of these leathers are still full grain, but the hides or skins are not usually the best quality which is why they are selected for this heavy, usually plastic finish.
Fully pigmented leather is characterised by the entire surface being one monotone colour with no variation in tone over the entire surface.
Due to the poorer quality hides selected, very often an imitation grain is embossed onto the surface to override the imperfect natural grain. This imparts a uniform look to go with the uniform colour.
It’s not that these leathers are unsuitable for use in luxury goods, but without the right design, it is very easy for your product to look rather dead and lacking in character or depth of colour.
Every cheap leather bag ever made uses heavy pigments with an embossed grain, and they are virtually indistinguishable from imitation synthetic leather as well.
This isn’t exclusive to chrome tanned leather either.
Types of leather finish:
Fully aniline dyes. No one really uses aniline based dyes anymore, it’s mostly stuck around as an industry term for a general leather dye or stain.
To give you context, I'm going to use a wooden table as an example.
Say you wanted to stain it dark brown. After staining, you would still see the knots, the colour variation, the grain of the wood, the warmth and natural depth of colour.
Fully pigmented dyes. Now, say you used a dark brown paint designed for walls instead of the wood stain.
You would still have a dark brown table sure, but you would not be able to see any colour or tone variation across the table surface.
You would only see one single shade of brown. This is rarely done because you begin to miss the natural beauty of the wood and it would look rather odd, I'm sure you'd agree.
Semi-aniline finish. This is a halfway house between the above finishes. Using our wooden table as an example again, let’s say that you mixed 50% dark brown paint with 50% dark brown stain, what would you get?
You would have a more uniform look to the table, but you would retain enough character, warmth and colour depth for a natural look.
My recommendation is to ask your leather supplier for a selection of samples using aniline or semi-aniline dyed leathers that are dyed all the way through the grain.
This will give you the character, depth, and the warmth associated with fine leather goods as well as the best ageing qualities.
The same is true for both vegetable tanned and chrome tanned leather.
Tonal stitching (thread colour matches, or closely matches the leather it is stitched to).
This is going to be a controversial one as many leather crafters will disagree here.
As leather craftsmen, we have perhaps taken years to hone our ability to stitch consistently, by hand, one stitch at a time.
A bag can use up as many as 10 hours in stitching alone. It is quite possibly the most difficult part, and the part that takes the most time and skill to do well.
But the results are worth the dedication and extreme patience as each 8 or 9 step process is played out over a thousand times on a single bag.
Examples of tonal stitching on a wallet (1) a card holder (2) and a key clochette (3).
To learn these techniques, see videos courses: 'The Card Slot Card Holder' and 'Details Make Perfection: The Clochette'.
So why on earth would you want to hide all that hard work by making your thread the same colour as the leather?? Great question, glad you asked.
Because subtlety and nuance are closely related to luxury.
Stitching that takes the eye away from the leather and overall design of the piece can throw off the aesthetic.
When done intelligently and with thought to the overall look, it is possible of course.
Hèrmes' famous barenia calf handbag features a deep golden tan and off white stitching.
The look contrasts the darker edges and is in line with their heritage in saddle making, where the look originates. Intelligent use of design.
If you are selling high priced luxury goods, it is enough that the customer knows that it is hand stitched, this is a unique selling point after all, but they do not always need to see it overtly.
Mostly, it's only other leather crafters that find it impressive. Clients on the other hand are mainly impressed when they see you hand stitching, not merely the end result.
If you are however hand stitching two pieces of leather together that are different colours, then one side will obviously contrast, which side is up to you.
(example above left shows a black crocodile long wallet and yellow bridle leather lining stitched with black thread matching the exterior).
Break this unofficial luxury rule if you will, just make sure it is done with the overall design in mind, not merely from the self indulgence of a saddle stitching aficionado.
Linings offer a much more completed look to fine leather goods. Be it watch straps, wallets or bags, a lining conveys that no expense had been spared, efforts conserved, or time saving corners cut.
It allows you to add pockets, card holders and pouches without stitches being exposed on the outside of a bag, as well as hiding any stiffening materials that have been used in construction.
And let’s be honest, placing your hand inside a soft lined bag is a much more luxurious experience.
It uses up more time, skill and expense, but that’s what makes up apex leather goods.
Linings can be material or leather like these linen (1) and suede (2) examples
And finally #7
Wallets that look like club sandwiches, or watch straps that barely fit into their buckles are not designed with finesse in mind.
They are part of a more rugged niche in leather goods. No better or worse, just in a different category.
They’re easy to make, easy to sell cheaply, and they’re tough. Fantastic, but that’s not the topic of discussion here.
Choosing edge thickness is a tricky business, there is no exact measurement or formula to work it out.
On a bag, it's a little more simple. You can take the overall thickness of a panel including exterior leather, reinforcement, and lining from both parts to be sewn together.
Then skive the edges so that overall thickness is approximately half that of the total thickness of both parts being stitched.
Clear as mud?
Here's an example: If both panels are 3.0mm total thickness, they should be skived until their edges are 1.5mm. Then once stitched together, the edge will measure 3.0mm.
You can go a little thicker or even thinner, but it gives you an idea of where to aim your leathercraft arrows.
Honorable mentions for luxury indicators:
- Custom hardware (uniqueness)
- Small maker logo on hardware (uniqueness)
- Custom dyed leather (exclusivity)
- High quality packaging (customer experience)
- Bespoke one-of-a-kind pieces (exclusivity)
- In person consultations (customer experience)
- Exotic skins (rarity)
- Separate 'Made In XXX' stamp away from main logo (attention to detail)
- Small Logo on exterior, or displayed inside (subtlety)
These examples simply represent indicators of luxury.
Most of the above images are taken from projects made in our video
If you would like to create fine leather goods and learn the essential knowledge and techniques that will enable you to create luxury leather goods, then a video course Plan will be exactly what you need.
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