I often get reader questions about getting stuck in the middle of project. Something like, ‘I created an edge by gluing these three layers together and now it looks too thick.’ Or ‘I’m almost done with my bag but I’m not sure how to install the feet.’
I also have gotten to this point many times where I’m thinking on the go and doing what I call exploratory building. That is where you aren’t quite sure how you’ll go about making a piece and trying different techniques while working on a piece. Figuring out how to build a new project is absolutely necessary to your growth as a leatherworker and you should do it often. Problems can arise though if you are trying to do this while also trying to complete a final piece.
You can waste many hours by starting with only a vague notion of how you will build something before actually building it but proceeding anyway. You can also make this time-consuming mistake a time-consuming expensive problem by using your final materials. One way to avoid wasting time and expensive leather is by making prototypes.
A finished bag and one of its prototypes
Everyone loves the idea of prototyping, but few do it. They just shuffle their feet and say something like, ‘yeah, I really should probably do that,’ but they never do. Why?
There are many reasons that I’ve heard like:
“I only have a limited number of hours to do leatherworking, so I just don’t have time.”
“I kind of just like to go for it.”
“I feel like it’s a waste of time. I can usually just figure it out.”
Prototyping feels like eating your vegetables to some people. Because they love leatherworking and time is short, they just want to get started but paradoxically this can end up wasting more of their time if they get stuck.
We all want to show everyone our best work and to do that means eliminating all of those tiny and sometimes bigger mistakes. When you do prototyping, you head off potential mistakes and blocks to a project. I’ve learned to love prototyping because I can play and experiment in my prototyping and then take the best of those experiment results and build them into my final.
Rough shape and style prototypes of a bag.
My favorite starting materials to use are canvas lightly spray mounted to felt. This gives the material a thickness and temper more similar to leather. It’s not quite the same as you can see how the prototypes droop a bit more than the final, but I can get a pretty good sense of how it will finish. You can also see that the edges are unfinished on one of canvas bags since I was testing the shape for finished edges.
In my prototypes, I am testing build variations and construction styles like:
- Zippers/no zippers
- Piped edges/finished edges
- leather selection
- color combination
- stress testing; wear testing
If I’m testing a new technique, I will build a few small test parts to just practice and perfect that component. If I need to test the overall size or fit, I will machine sew the piece together but, in a pinch, I’ll use tape or even staples, so I can just see a full-scale version. Going the other way, I’ll build a half or quarter scale version in final materials if I want to double check the construction and process. Smaller is often harder so if I can easily build a tiny version of my final, the larger one will be a breeze.
I give my small-scale prototype versions to my kid. At this point she probably has more toy hand-bags than some adults.
I still get some things wrong. But they are much reduced. A final construction with slightly different materials might sit differently. These things still happen but I almost always know where the risks are after having done a prototype.
If you have the time, use your prototype to test how your work will wear. This is especially important if you plan on selling a piece. I’ll make a project in final materials and try it out for as long as I can to see how it wears. Read more about how I tested a pair of leather sandals.
By prototyping your projects, you can shave hours and stress off a project and improve the quality of your work with each new final creation.