Updated: Dec 22, 2020
Vintage Louis Vuitton.
Words that make any leather crafter go weak at the knees.
Before LV became the LVMH giant French multinational luxury goods conglomerate that it is today, things were a little less marketing and a little more savoir faire.
The story of this little case began when I got to meet Jean-Philippe Rolland of ‘La Malle En Coin’ recently in Haguenau France.
For those who don’t know, La Malle En Coin is a company that specialises in restoration of leather goods, trunks and cases. They also make new trunks to order as well as sell new and antique trunk parts.
Arriving in Haguenau, I met JP at the exact time we had arranged on Instagram DM.
He warmly greeted me and my nephew (who was raised in France and speaks French like a native) at the door of his workshop and he welcomed us inside.
What I saw was an Aladdin's cave of luxury trunks and luggage from the early 1800’s up to today.
Hundreds of examples carefully stored in containers to regulate temperature and humidity levels.
Louis Vuitton, Goyard, Moynat, everywhere the eye could see, there were trunks. Vintage trunks!
We received the grand tour of the collection, and we got to see a very special rare antique case by Louis Vuitton, made from what appears to be the largest alligator I’ve ever seen. Hence the Cheshire cat grin.
Things only got better from there as myself, my partner and nephew were given a guided tour of the Musée Du Baggage. A museum nearby with a collection of trunks donated by La Malle En Coin. A selection of the 600+ trunks in their inventory.
During our time there we were treated to a wonderful meal at a nearby restaurant serving delicious Alsatian cuisine. Afterwards, JP and his wife Marie concluded our experience with drinks at their beautiful home.
But there was something that JP had asked me to do while I was there.
He had received a small LV doll's case from one of the Vuitton family members to repair. This doll’s case had a missing handle and a new one needed to be made to make it whole again.
He asked if I could make a new one for it and I happily agreed.
Back in England, I got to work on this very unique project.
The Louis Vuitton doll's case with tools and materials ready to make a new handle
To begin with, I needed to select the leather I wanted to work with in order to match the doll's case exterior.
The case is estimated to be 100 years old, so matching a patina of that colour is very difficult to do with dyes alone.
An aged patina from 1920 has a depth and richness that dyes alone cannot easily compare to.
Using dyes made from aniline powders here in the workshop, I experimented with different shades using the un-dyed vegetable tanned leather I had selected for the project.
The leather chosen is produced by La Tannerie Masure, a Vuitton owned tannery in Belgium. So I thought it would be perfect for this project.
The next step was matching the stitching as closely as possible. The existing stitches equated to 9 stitches per inch, or 3mm spacing and the thread closely matched 432 Lin Cable waxed linen.
I discovered that rubbing a mid tan wax over the stitches then using a heat gun to melt it in on a low setting, gave me the look of 100 years of dirt and wax that had settled in the original stitch holes.
This also had the added benefit of deepening the colour and sealing the leather.
Colour matching the leather and stitches, complete with 100 years of 'dirt'
JP had asked me to match the shape and style of a full sized vintage case that he already had in his collection.
He had seen an intact LV doll's case before, so he knew the style and shape that it would have been.
I took a couple photos while I was there and used them for inspiration.
A full size LV attache with the style of handle the miniature dolls case originally had
Now that I had settled on the exterior colour, it was on to creating the filler shape.
Again I went for vegetable tanned leather, but in a much thicker 3mm so that I could sculpt it to the correct depth with a Blanchard skiving knife.
Once the rough shape was complete, I sanded, bevelled and burnished the tiny filler into the shape I wanted.
Vegetable tanned filler is used to reinforce and give shape to the handle
Now that the handle filler had been sculpted into shape, it was time to glue it into position on a piece of foundation leather that I had split to 1mm.
I used a curved block of wood and glued the two pieces together on a curve. This will help ensure that the handle maintains that classic arch shape synonymous with this style of handle.
Filler glued to the foundation leather on a curved wooden block to maintain shape
Next up was the leather wrap which will be stitched around the filler.
The exterior had been split to 1.2mm, which is very thick for a handle of this size (or any handle for that matter).
I wanted it to be thick enough so that the leather used to wrap the handle was also thick enough to form the turnover at each end of the handle and securing it to the brass hardware.
The leather was then dyed to the correct shade, allowing sufficient drying time between coats to keep an eye on the colour depth.
Each time dye is added, the piece is flipped over and placed on a plastic sheet so that the only way for the moisture from the dye to evaporate is through the flesh side.
This capillary action causes the dye to be pulled through the grain layer away from the surface.
Dye being added in stages to ensure correct colour depth
Now, the problem with the relatively thick outer layer is that it doesn't want to conform to the rather intricate shape of the handle. So, I have devised a unique way of softening and gluing the leather at the same time.
So, how do I do it?
Those who have watched my video course on making an attache briefcase ‘The Bloomsbury Attache case: Handle Making’ will remember that I used this method for working with the thickest possible exterior leather, yet still attaining mould-ability and ensuring durability.
I call the method ‘glue casing’ which is a technique borrowed from a time when wheat paste was by far the most common leathercraft glue available.
Due to the water content of the paste, the moisture would soak through into the leather fibres and soften them. This allowed the craftsmen to almost wet form the leather with a bone folder as it was being glued into place. Perfect for case handles.
Today wheat paste is not readily available and is a hassle to make from scratch, so my glue casing trick involves diluting Saregum with distilled water 1:1.
Saregum is a water based rubber contact adhesive (links below).
I reapply several layers as the dilute adhesive soaks through from the flesh side, then I simply leave it for about an hour with the grain side facing the table.
The moisture can't escape through the grain side against the table, and the rubber glue (now drying on the surface) prevents moisture escaping through the flesh side. This leaves the moisture to equalise evenly throughout the fibres and thus softening the leather.
Top cover leather 'casing' while the glue dries
Once the glue on the surface had become clear and touch dry, the leather underneath was nice and soft.
Now it is simply a matter of placing it over the filler and foundation leather, then forming the shape with a bone folder.
Boning in the shape around the filler. The leather is still damp here and easily marked
Once both sides are shaped, the cut line is marked and a 3mm pricking iron is used to mark the surface leather.
Stitches marked and ready for cutting out
Since this handle is going to be stitched in place, I can’t use an awl effectively, so I am penetrating through with a Wuta leather pricking iron.
Once all the layers of leather have had a full day to completely dry, I cut the excess with a round knife following the cut line.
Cutting out the handle following the cut line in the leather
Note the fishtail turnover cut to the elliptic shape of the handle it attaches to
After creasing with a 1mm manual creaser
Due to the stretching and working of the handle during the shaping process, the leather has lightened about two shades, so another application of dye is needed. The final mid tan wax coating will finish off the colour depth.
Final application of dye before stitching and waxing
With the case protected and lining installed, the handle is slowly stitched
The stitching process was long and complicated due to the tiny shape and close proximity to the case.
I had to anneal and bend two small saddlers needles into a tight curve so that I could complete the project.
The edges were finished and sealed with an edge wax made from beeswax and French pine rosin which is a traditional finish that I feel completes the look a handle from 1920.
And now this rare little case has it's handle back, and hopefully it will see another 100 years with some care.
Perhaps one day, someone will ask a craftsman if they can replace a missing case on this vintage Vuitton handle 😏.
If you are looking to learn the techniques outlined in this build and take your leathercraft skills to the next level, check out the video course Plan options here, and start your fine leathercraft journey today.
Tool links below:
Thank you for reading and see you in the next blog post.
Blanchard HSS 'high speed steel' edition skiving knife
Precision round knife, also made from high speed steel
Saregum water based rubber contact adhesive
Wuta leather DC53 steel pricking iron