I have always loved leather. The look, the smell, the texture- it’s just heavenly. The buttery soft lambskins or deerskins are my favorite but I also love hair-on-hide cow leather.
I had never worked with leather until I took a mini book-making workshop back in 2003 when I lived in Georgia. We used a small piece of leather (which the teacher supplied) as the binding. After that little book I went out and bought some small pieces of leather at the local craft store to play with. I made one small suede book that I transferred an image to for the front and used a stamp for the image on the back. Then I never touched those leather pieces again until I took a jewelry making class online in 2009 while living in Illinois. The jewelry class was learning how to flood solder on metal & etching on metal so I used those techniques combined with what I learned in the book class and made a couple more books using my small pieces of leather as the spine.
Then, in 2012 I was fortunate enough to be invited to join an art group named Women’s Journeys in Fiber in the Chicago area. They have a theme each year and each member creates one piece. They exhibit their work in at least 3 venues each year and also self-publish a book to coordinate with their project. You can read more about it here.
The year I joined WJIF the theme project was ‘Footwear’. The leader of our fiber group contacted Sara McIntosh, who is a master shoemaker, she owns & operates The Chicago School of Shoemaking . Sara gave a lecture on footwear for our group. Sara was also invited to join our group that year and she made a fabulous boot for the project. She suggested we take a mini workshop to give us a quick tutorial in leather even though many in our group opted to create footwear from fabric, lace, and various other fibers and mediums. I took the mini workshop and created a very large clutch purse. (below) I wanted it mainly to carry sketchbooks in or even an iPad. (see photo below) That class reeled me in and had me hooked on leather for sure!
My original idea for the footwear project was to upcycle a pair of cowboy boots, replacing the shaft with a crazy quilt of fabrics and photos of ‘girls from the old west’ printed on fabric. Well….that never happened. That leather class sent me in a new direction. I knew I wanted to honor women of the old west, but I went from ‘cowgirls’ to Native American footwear. I bought a whole deerskin hide and ordered a pattern for ‘Plains High-Top Moccasins’. I based my idea on the story of Cynthia Ann Parker, who was captured & raised by Commanche. You can read my artist statement here. My handstitched and beaded moccasins are below. I also dyed strips of leather and used a wood/leather burning tool to add symbols.
Those moccasins were a major accomplishment and turning point for me. Until then, I wasn’t really a beader and that whole project set me on a new trajectory. I am so thankful for being a part of Women’s Journeys in Fiber and for living in the Chicago area where I could go take classes at the Chicago School of Shoemaking. I didn’t take nearly enough classes or visit often enough, but I did take a 2-day shoemaking workshop with Sara after I finished my moccasins. Sara carefully measures your foot, draws the pattern and hands it to you. You are then instructed on how to create the entire shoe, start to finish. My ankle boots fit like a glove and are extremely comfortable. Sara also offers classes in pattern making since that is an art in itself. As you can see from the photos below I have worn them quite a bit, they are well broken in!
Sara had just ventured into conducting workshops when I met her in 2012. She has been a shoemaker for well over 30 years, doing custom work. Since I took her workshop she has grown her business to the point she had to find a larger location for the business. She also has had several apprentices who are now qualified to teach. If anyone lives near Chicago or wants to go visit, I highly recommend checking out The Chicago School of Shoemaking! She is in the Ravenswood neighborhood.
I am sad that I don’t live close enough to go play at Sara’s anymore. Before I moved I did get a chance to take her ‘Beautiful Bag’ class. I wanted to make a big leather purse and she just happened to have a workshop for it. So I got together with several friends and we took a purse class. We got to choose our leather, pattern, hardware & then instructions on our project. I really love the soft leather I chose and the gray color. Sometimes it looks almost green, sometimes it has a metallic look. I added pockets on the outside to hold my cell phone or keys. The strap is convertible so that I can use it as a cross-body bag if I want.
I loved that purse leather so much that I bought all the extra that was leftover even though I had no idea what I would do with it. Then one day I happened to be beading a mermaid that was much too large for a necklace so I decided to make a small purse with that beautiful gray leather for my mermaid.
I purchased several other odds & ends of leather from Sara’s shop with intentions of someday doing something with them. So, one day I decided I needed some small pouches to put in my Big Beautiful Bag I made, which is so big that I can’t find anything! I made these (below)to toss inside and organize my big purse. I actually stitched these on my regular sewing machine at home with a needle specifically designed for leather. I used a heavier weight thread as well and big metal zippers-not the nylon ones. These little pouches are perfect for holding pens & pencils for sketching or lipsticks, gum & mints.
I tend to have a fear of making the first cut in the leather, as I want to make sure that it is exactly the size, shape that I need. So when I finally got brave enough to cut a piece of periwinkle blue leather that I bought from Sara’s shop I made the purse below. Again, I was beading and the beaded piece grew larger than I expected (like the mermaid) and decided it would look much better on a purse than as a necklace. The polymer clay goddess is by fellow team member Jenny.
If you saw our March Amulet Bag Theme Challenge you saw that several of us created leather amulet bags. (The photo on the header is a collection of a few of the leather amulet bags I made) Once again, working with the leather just confirmed that I really love the stuff. It is a bit tough to sew through by hand unless you have the proper tools and even then it can be tricky, so I will share some of my tips and tricks in ‘Leather Love-Part Two’ next month. I will also give a mini tutorial on how I made the periwinkle mermaid bag above as well as the project I am working on currently-another purse with beaded adornment.
So stay tuned for more adventures in leather!