Right Place, Right Tool, Righteously Good Leather Work

It used to be that whenever I was in the middle of a project, I would lose track of a tool. It could be a knife, a pricking iron, or sometimes even my awl. I would look up from my workbench to see chaos. Pieces of leather would be everywhere; my tools would be sitting on top of my patterns, with thread and paint all over the place. Inevitably, I would overturn every leather scrap and paper pattern until I found what I was looking for and when I sat down again, I’d lose my focus and feel frustrated. This would be especially true when I was trying to hit a deadline.

Have you had a similar moment while leatherworking? You’re burning the midnight oil with your tools and leather spread out everywhere, feeling like you don’t know what to do next or where anything is?

Mastering the craft of leatherworking is about getting all of the small things right, and today, I want to show you a tool you can add to your mental toolbox that will get you closer to your goal of leatherworking excellence. It’s called mise en place.

Mise En What?

Mise en place [miz ɑ̃ plas] literally translates to ‘putting in place.’ It’s a concept that has a long history and prominence in the cooking and the restaurant industry. The famous culinary encyclopedia, Larousse Gastronomique, defines it as “the French term for all the operations carried out in a restaurant prior to serving the meal.”

Mise en place for hot station
Photo: Charles Haynes

Within the culinary world, mise en place is the consideration you give to how you arrange your workspace and cooking utensils, how you move about within the kitchen, and all the little details that go into making a meal, all the way from buying the ingredients to the final serving of the dish.

Today, we’re going focus on one principle of mise en place: the arrangement of space, and how it can help you in developing your leather crafting skills.

In a kitchen, mise en place is embodied in the concept of economy of space. If you have ever seen a professional kitchen, you would have noticed that each station within the kitchen is organized in a way that allows quick-and-easy access to all of the ingredients and utensils that are needed to make a dish. In Ruhlman’s Twenty, author Michael Ruhlman describes how one uses mise en place to not only to plan what you have in front of you but more importantly, which things should be absent. You should “…recognize not only what you need in front of you, but also what does not belong, what should not be on your board, beside the stove, in your brain.”

Setting Up For Your Work

So what does this mean for your leather craft? When you set up your space purposefully, you can work faster, easier, and more accurately. By having your tools and materials reliably in the same place, you’ll have everything at your fingertips and will always know exactly where to find everything you need. In this way, you can avoid frantically searching for tools and materials when they’re needed, which is the inevitable result of a disorganized and unkempt workspace. Your project piece, awl, needles, hammer or any of the many things you might need will always be right where you left them.

When you are panicked in the midst of not being able to find the tool you need, you have become distracted. Ruhlman says, that “when you are working hard and fast, you are thinking about what you’re cooking, and you are imagining what you’re cooking should look like. What happens in this busy-ness of cooking is that what you are imagining and what your eyes are actually seeing merge. When clutter is in your field of vision, it can trip up your thoughts, and you stumble mentally, slow down, and have to recover.”

Applied to leatherworking, this is certainly true for me. When I have to stop to find my pricking iron because it is hidden underneath a piece of leather, it jerks me out of my thought process and my mental presence. I think, ‘Where did I put that damn thing?’ and then proceed to search for it. Once I find it, I have to re-remember what was I doing, while thinking to myself: “Wait do I need to cut this before I punch the holes? Or did I already do that? Let me go and measure this again.”

All of these little moments not only take you away from your work but they also add more time to your overall process. They begin as little moments of stress and continue to build until you’re totally frazzled and only a few stitches further along than where you were an hour ago.

Everything in its Place

When you take a moment to arrange your tools, your materials, and your workspace, you’ll find that not only can you concentrate more easily, but you can also work faster and more accurately. If you can consistently create the same setup for yourself each time you work, you’ll think less and less about ‘Where’s that awl?’ and free up your mind to focus on your project. For example, when you’re hand-sewing leather, you want to create uniform and precise stitches. Even stitching is a key component in the overall quality and appearance of a piece of leathercraft. By extending that notion beyond the stitches to how the tools you use are arranged, you’ll get more consistency and better results.

Another component of mise en place is the concept of ‘working clean’ in your leatherworking space. In a kitchen, ‘working clean’ is of vital importance so that you don’t accidentally give your guests food poisoning. When you use this same principle in your leather craft, you will be able to keep your workspace clear and avoid silly, comparable mistakes like putting your piece in a puddle of glue or dye. ‘Working clean’ will also help you achieve greater mental focus, with the end result being a de-cluttering of your field of vision so that you can concentrate more easily.

A Practical Example That You Can Start Using Today

Today, I’m going to show you my setup for sewing. You can try this out for yourself by copying the placements outlined below or you can tweak the setup to fit your individual needs. The objective is to find a layout that will work for you and then repeat it every time you sew. After a while, knowing where things are will become second nature to you. Here is the overall setup:

Fine Leatherworking Sewing Setup Overview
From top to bottom, my setup includes: sewing clam, compass, knife, thread, wax, awl, needles, project pieces, patterns, small cutting mat, harness hammer, rawhide hammer, set of pricking irons, punching mat, and a granite slab. There is also a ruler resting on the far side of the slab.

It is worthwhile to note that this is a mobile setup for me. While this setup would normally be in the garage, we recently had our first child, and so I like to be upstairs within earshot of the family in case they need my help. Additionally, when I’m breaking a hide down into components, I find it easier to have a separate area dedicated specifically to cutting rather than trying to move all of my tools around. In your case, if your workspace is stationary and you find yourself working predominantly from one area, try putting tools into trays so that you can more easily clear the space when you have to do big cuts. There are no edging tools and paints in this picture, but if there were, they would be across the top of the table above the small cutting mat. If I’m gluing pieces, I’ll add a glue pot, paper, and a smoother to the top area as well. To make the most of this setup, all of the big pieces have already been cut and whatever is left usually only needs a trim.

Now, let’s dive into each section individually. The first is the main sewing section:

Fine Leatherworking Sewing Setup Main Section
If you’re out and about and you have already punched all of your holes, the tools you see here are all you actually need to sew. I’ll use just this section of my overall setup and work in a café if it’s a nice day or if I just need to get out of the house. Again, since this is a mobile setup, my clam is placed securely on the table. It’s much safer than trying to prop it up since it has a natural tendency to fall or slide. When I’m working, it’s usually just resting on my leg.

Fine Leatherworking Sewing Setup Project Orgainzation
I organize my materials into three different piles: a pile of pieces to sew, my patterns if I need to check a piece for size and a pile of completed pieces. Once I start, my compass will be opened to the stitch distance required and will stay that way until my session is done. Everything you see pictured here gets placed back in its original location once I’m done working with it. Also, in an effort to stay hydrated, I like to keep a glass of water nearby so that I remember to drink. I don’t know about you, but hours can pass once I get into my sewing zone, so having a glass on the table to remind me really helps.

Fine Leatherworking Sewing Setup Awl Organization
The awl and needle setup that I use is particularly helpful for me to keep track of small leatherworking items and also serves to protect the points of my tools when I’m not using them. Awls and needles, in particular, have a tendency to roll around; putting them in a cork helps to keep them stationary. There’s no back stitching in my current setup, but if there were, I’d put my round awl in this cork too.

Fine Leatherworking Sewing Setup Hammering Station
I use this station to punch new stitching holes once I’m through my first round of sewing. I always place a thick hide over my stone before punching my holes. This helps to protect the teeth of the pricking iron and as a result, they stay sharper longer. I’ll also use this station to hammer my finished stitches. Both hammers are in place and ready to go so that I can use either in a pinch.

It’s important to do your hammering over the strongest part of the table, which is usually right over the leg. The middle of any big table will act as a trampoline when you hit it, due to there being less direct support underneath, and so hammering your stitches over a table leg will reduce the bounce back. Otherwise, you’ll need to hammer harder and possibly punch through your backing hide into the granite, which is an expensive mistake.

While this may seem like a simple setup, adopting good workspace habits can be an important technique to keep you organized and inspired. Once you get into the habit of keeping things where they should be, you’ll be able to work faster, more easily and with a greater degree of enjoyment.

Your Fine Leatherworking Challenge

If you’re reading this blog, then you are looking for those extra steps to take your work to the next level. So, here’s my challenge for you: try this setup for five sessions and send me a photo of your results. If you already have your own setup, send me that too. You can email both to sean@fineleatherworking.com. We’ll post everyone’s setup on our Pinterest and Instagram pages.

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