When I teach students how to make leather goods, I teach techniques and skills to help their leather projects last. Whether that is picking the most effective way to glue or selecting the right part of the leather, every little bit counts. Even if you get these right, your pieces will still age and wear down. So, how do you know what to improve? How do you know whether that stitch you were sure you set correctly actually stayed together?
If you want to improve how your pieces age and wear, you must look at them again. This might seem like a ‘duh’ point, but when I ask leatherworkers how your pieces hold up, many of them just shrug. One person said, “After I make something, I pretty much never see it again.”
If you are only making things for yourself, it’s pretty easy to see how your pieces age because you use them frequently, if not daily.
My current wallet is around ten years old, and I keep it in my pocket not because it is my best work but because the numerous mistakes remind me how I will never make them again. It’s too thick; the edges split in some places, the stitches sink at a few seams because I pulled too hard, and the leather stretches too much because I put too many things in my wallet. I look at that wallet daily and remember, “Oh, right! Don’t put too much tension on the thread.”
Many of my students do the same. They carry around their early pieces as reminders of what to improve and, more importantly, how far they’ve come. One student used to carry around the first handbag she made in my course, and she called it ‘Frankie,’ short for Frankenstein. She proudly brandishes it whenever she returns, and it’s a great reminder of how much a better leatherworker she is. I think she now uses it as a tool bag. Another student has the same simple veg-tan purse she brought into her first class with us over five years ago. I thought it was a well-made piece because it’s still holding up, and the seams are in good shape. If you also carry around your ‘learning trophies, ’ take a fresh look at them now and then to see how they are aging and how you could improve your technique.
One of my earliest bags was a valuable lesson in improving how your design wears. My first example in that article was how to improve sewing a strap to a bag. By putting the last stitch perpendicular to the direction of the force, I inadvertently created a weakness which eventually caused the strap to fail. I didn’t realize that until a year of using that bag.
If you sell or give away your pieces, you have more opportunities to improve how your projects age. Remember how I said most leatherworkers never see their pieces again?
One easy thing you can do is offer a complimentary cleaning or maintenance after a year and five years. It’s a simple yet powerful step for you and your practice because it accomplishes many things.
Free cleaning or maintenance is a great way to show gratitude to your customers. It helps to keep them connected without being sales-y; you’re not asking for anything, and you’re not trying to sell them their next wallet; it can simply be a quick clean and send them on their way. But by doing this, you also get valuable insight into your work. How is it standing up? Where is it wearing faster? How are they using it? Did you make a five-card case and discover they ‘somehow fit twelve cards in there?
Sometimes, you won’t have time to do free services, and at a large scale, it’s not feasible. If you can include this in your practice, you’ll learn a lot when you restore and repair your work. You can see which parts need the most reinforcement, which deteriorates quickly, and which building methods and leathers last the longest. Since people will use your work uniquely, you can see how their usage varies with wear and tear. Your customers will be grateful for giving new life to their items, and you will know how to build them better to withstand even longer use.