When I first started leathercrafting, my main goal was to make items that loved ones and I could enjoy. As my skills grew over the years, I decided to expand and share my work with more people. This step is a big one that took a lot of research. I didn’t quite know if I was ready, but I found some success through trial and error.
A leatherworker is anyone who works with leather. This can be those who make items from scratch to sell and industry workers who repair or prepare the material. Jobs in this industry are competitive and include independent workers, saddle makers, upholsters, and artisans at fashion companies.
Becoming a leatherworker takes skill and knowledge regarding the industry. This article will cover how one becomes a leatherworker and helpful tips for heading in the right direction.
What Is a Leatherworker?
Leatherworkers are anyone who works with leather for their profession. Typically, this term is used for crafters who have begun selling their work. The term may also be used for those in the industry, including those who repair and prepare the material in their respective position. Some of these jobs include:
- Saddle makers
- Artisans who work at fashion companies
Leatherworking is a small yet highly competitive industry, in which many who succeed often must carve their own path, finding success by fulfilling a niche they may have created. Positions outside independent work are scarce and typically have a lower turnover rate than most professions.
What We’ll Explore
- Clearing up Myths & Misconceptions
- History of Leatherworker
- Leatherworker Overview Table
- Other Names for a Leatherworker
- Types of Leatherworkers
- How To Become a Professional Leatherworker
- Must-Have Tools for Leatherworkers
- Basic Leatherworker Techniques
- Inspiring Stories About Leatherworkers
- Challenges and Future Trends for Leatherworkers
- Joining the Leatherworker Community
- My Personal Research Into Leatherworkers
- Helpful Leatherworker Insights
- Key Takeaways
Clearing Up Myths & Misconceptions
As a crafter active on different leather forums, a common misconception is new leather workers’ expectations. Too many times, I see crafters thinking once they hone their skills, the sales will begin rolling in. While it is important to provide a quality product, the independent side of leatherworking is highly competitive. For every successful full-time worker, there are dozens of shops that unfortunately could not make it.
While each successful shop will have its advice on how to succeed, there will always be an element of luck. Becoming a leatherworker is no easy feat, and those new to the craft should not expect an easy career path. However, those willing to dedicate themselves and seize opportunities as they arise may find success over time.
History of Leatherworkers
During the earliest stages of leatherworkers, women were given the job. In 5000 BC, women would stay behind to tan the leather by hand before creating crude garments or pouches. As time passed, this work became more valuable, and the trade took off. In the Middle Ages there were many tanners, crafters, and saddlers.
Although leatherworking remained a working-class career, it held pride as noblemen relied on these crafters. Leatherworkers at that time tackled many areas of the craft, including sheath, garment, belt, and box making. Today, leatherworking is a much less common career. With mass-production machines becoming a staple for many industries, the need for labor is much lower.
As a result, those who wish to pursue a career in leather must often find their own success, requiring more dedication than other careers. Most leatherwork is divided among solo artisans competing to make a name for themselves.
Leatherworker Overview Table
|Careers||Tanner, currier, saddler, lorimer, cobbler, glover, beltmaker, or artisan|
|Tools||Knife, hole punch, and sewing supplies at minimum|
|Skills||Cutting, punching, sewing, designing, dying, and repairing|
|Training||Classes in person or online, apprenticeship, or self-taught. Typically, no formal training|
Other Names for Leatherworker
The other names for a leatherworker are typically from occupations in the past. A worker would be given a title based on the task they completed. Tanners and curriers, for example, are names given to those who work on producing the material.
With curriers specifically applying the dyes and finishes to the hides. These other names help break up leatherworking from a generalization of those that work with leather, to multiple specializations. More common titles include:
- Belt makers
Types of Leatherworkers
Leatherworking is a versatile craft with various specializations, and here are some types of leatherworkers:
- Tanners – Those who work at a tannery to turn raw animal hides into leather.
- Curriers – A specialized tannery worker who dyes and finishes tanned leather pieces.
- Saddlers – Workers who primarily focus on crafting and repairing leather saddles.
- Lorimer – A maker of bits and metal spurs used during saddle making.
- Cobbler – Leatherworkers who focus on footwear, construction, and repair.
- Glover – Those who specialize in making leather gloves.
- Belt Maker – A leatherworker specializing in belts, straps, and harnesses.
- Hostler – Workers who create gun holsters and other sheaths out of leather.
Veldmeijer, André J, from the University of California, Los Angeles, in Los Angeles, California, discussed using leatherwork in ancient Egypt, including footwear, garments, and supplies such as rope. Showing the importance of the craft throughout history tells us how different civilizations utilized this age-old material.
How To Become a Professional Leatherworker
Becoming a professional leatherworker is no easy task and has no straight path to success. Depending on a crafter’s goal, much of the course is searching for opportunities and taking initiative. The first step for any worker is to learn the desired profession as thoroughly as possible. This may include sled teaching or classes provided locally or online.
The better one becomes at their craft, the more likelihood for success when trying to transition to a professional. Once the skills required have been honed, one must be proactive in their career search. Posting in forums, contacting potential employers, and staying vigilant for opportunities are key.
With limited career spaces, however, many may have to create their own. This may include opening a store to attempt to pursue a career. With this brings new challenges, such as market research, fulfillment, competition, and accounting. Becoming a professional leatherworker may not be simple, but it can be satisfying for those who succeed in the industry.
Must-Have Tools for Leatherworkers
One of the most important tools to begin leatherworking is a sharp knife. This can be a fixed-blade knife or a blade with disposable blades. The most important part is keeping the cutting edge sharp. Leather may be a tough material to cut. Keeping a sharp blade will make it much easier to pass through the leather and be safer overall. A knife will be used on every project to cut out leather pieces.
An awl is vital for crafting as it is used to create holes in leather. It is a sharp, typically slanted blade fixed to a handle. An awl is a great way to mark leather for cutting, but the primary purpose of it is to create stitching holes by hand. To do so, the blade will be pushed through the leather, with the slanted blade creating a signature slanted stitch. Awls can be substituted for a sewing machine or stitching chisels, as both work to make holes for sewing leather.
Harness needles, along with thread, are also necessary for leatherworking. They are the most common way leather pieces are attached, creating a permanent bond. Although any needles will work, harness needles are specifically designed for leatherwork. They are stronger, have a blunted tip, and a smaller eye. In practice, they easily pass through leather and protect your fingertips while sewing.
Basic Leatherworker Techniques
Cutting will be necessary no matter what project you are attempting in leatherwork. Cutting leather is not as easy as cutting other materials and requires a sharp blade. Learning how to cut leather safely is most important. There are other techniques, such as cutting curves, that are also important as they expand the possibility of a project.
Stitching leather is an extremely common way to bond pieces together in leatherwork. This process requires holes to be made with an awl, hole punch, or chisels. Needles attached to thread will pass through these holes and lock the leather in place. While there are many different stitching methods, the most popular is the saddle stitch. This method interlocks the thread by using two needles on a single thread. Helping hold the thread in place if a stitch were ever to break.
Although leather can be purchased already dyed, those who wish to add their own creative flair can use natural leather. Natural leathers will have no color added to them and accept dye very easily. With many different colors available, leather can be dyed in a variety of ways. Colors may be mixed, or patterns may be created to provide a unique take on a leather project.
Another great way to add personalization in leatherwork is to tool the leather. Tooling is a way to add images onto the surface using stamps and knives. Designs will be cut into the leather using a swivel knife, as the thicker blade creates a valley.
Stamps that can be added come in a large variety of shapes and sizes. In addition, stamps can be custom-ordered, allowing for any image to be stamped onto leather. Tooling can only be done on dampened vegetable tanned leather, as it retains markings very well.
In this video provided by Weaver Leather Supply, Chuck Dorsett shows common tools and techniques of the craft, explaining their use and how they can be expanded on.
Inspiring Stories About Leatherworkers
Many different journeys led people to become leatherworkers. These typically involve a new hobby that slowly overtook a full-time position or those who found the craft in a time of financial need. Soumana Saley’s story is much bigger than that, however. Saley decided to pursue the craft at 11 years old, becoming an apprentice to a family friend. In Niamey, Niger, where Saley worked, it was a non-traditional profession. Despite this, Saley pushed forward.
After decades of honing his talents, his hard work paid off. Saley’s beautiful wallets and bags were featured in the Smithsonian’s Crafts of African Fashion show in 2018. Saley has since returned home and opened a leatherworking school for other aspiring leatherworkers.
Challenges and Future Trends for Leatherworkers
The highest hurdle at any stage of a leatherworker’s career is discipline. In the early stages, many techniques must be honed in preparation for a professional setting. When first beginning to sell work, discipline comes in the form of opportunity hunting. Even when a business is strong and successful, discipline is required to maintain quality while juggling tasks. Making a career in this craft requires commitment.
Outside of workers’ control, however, is the potential change in the market. Leather is a luxury material that may drive customers away during economic struggles. With less money to spend on these goods and high competition, sales may be tough. In addition, there has been a large push for leather alternatives. While they currently remain largely unproven, potential innovations can impact the leather market.
Jobs in this industry are competitive and include independent workers, saddle makers, upholsters, and artisans at fashion companies.
Joining the Leatherworker Community
Speaking from experience, the leatherworking community is a welcoming one. Many forums and in-person workshops make it easy to get involved. Crafters are excited to share information with one another, provide feedback, and offer suggestions on how to improve projects. Although the community is helpful, workers are less likely to share their business strategy in depth.
Most professionals have carved out their own customer base or catered to a specific niche. While offering general tips, they tend to keep their strategies secret. They do not want the hard work they put into their market through research to become oversaturated.
My Personal Research Into Leatherworkers
Breaking into the leather industry can be tough, especially for those looking to start their own business. For my research, I looked at various successful crafters and compiled helpful information to assist those looking to take the next step.
Hone Your Skills
This may be the most common tip I saw when looking for advice, but I also see its value. Too often, crafters rush into the business side of leather without taking the time to improve this work. As a result, it becomes much more difficult to market, and custom requests may become too advanced for some.
Even if the business begins gaining traction, working yourself into a corner is possible. Orders must be completed, taking away from any potential practice time. The biggest problem is the first impressions built. By not having polished work to sell, to begin with, customers may find themselves not returning due to higher expectations.
Understand Your Market
Even the most advanced crafters will have difficulty selling their products if they don’t address the market side of their business. Before attempting to advertise or build a band, take a second to consider your product. Look at what you are selling, who you aim to sell to, and how to convey that message. Don’t create delicate leather items for a Bushcraft market.
In addition, it may be wise to follow potential trends in the market. Holidays and other events are a great way to keep your business fresh without needing to reinvent the wheel. Keeping potential customers engaged with a new line of products may help expand your market.
Find What You Love
It’s easy to rush into the business side of leather chasing sales. There is always potential for success this way, but the work is not ideal. Finding what you love to make most lets you be enthusiastic about every project you craft. This enthusiasm shows in the work. Someone who cares about what they are making will go the extra mile to ensure the best product possible.
By focusing on things you enjoy making, you also gain a deeper understanding of the average needs of a customer. For example, someone who enjoys camping will create a much better outdoor product than one who does not. The entire crafting, designing, and marketing process feels natural, allowing you to dive further into other hobbies and find ways to incorporate them with leather.
When looking at the various tips successful crafters provide, they share a common sentiment: a passion for their craft. They have all learned how leatherworking has fit into their career path in sustainable ways. Leatherworking may not be for everyone, but these tips can help those interested begin developing a business strategy.
Helpful Leatherworker Insights
What is a leatherworker called?
There are many names for a leatherworker depending on the task they accomplish with the material. Common job titles include tanner, currier, saddler, belt maker, cobbler, glover, and artisan. These jobs can include both tasks at the tannery to produce the material and crafters who create or repair leather.
What does a leather worker do?
The job of a leatherworker varies but can be broken into two main categories. The first is those who work to make the leather, such as tanners or curriers. These workers will take raw animal hide and process it into the material we know. The second category of workers is those who work with leather. This may include those who create or repair. Jobs can include saddlers, belt makers, cobblers, and glovers.
Is there money in leather working?
While it is possible to make a career by working with leather, it is a difficult space to get into. Tannery work does not have a high turnover rate, and becoming a craftsman typically requires one to start their own business. The leather market is competitive, and opportunities are less available than other career paths.
What is the old name for a leatherworker?
Old names for leatherworkers were typically based on the tasks they would perform. A belter was a leatherworker who made belts, and a bottler made leather bottles. The term they used for all leatherworkers was “codman.”
What was a leather worker in medieval times?
Leatherworkers during medieval times were common laborers, but their skills were highly sought after. At the time, leatherworkers would tool, paint, and dye most of their projects, with most having to work on various items, including clothing, sheaths, shoes, and saddles.
What profession works with leatherworking?
There are many professions that use leatherworking as a part of their career. Upholsterers, fashion designers, and many others will eventually come across leather. This is due to the versatility of the material and the demand for high-quality goods. Leather will be seen used for luxury options of typically non-leather goods.
What are leatherworker trades?
Most career paths in leatherwork will be some form of trade skill. Although a few industries, such as saddle making, have some formal training, most do not. As a result, jobs are found through experience and apprenticeships.
- Leatherworkers are found in a wide variety of industries and self-employed artisans.
- The majority of leatherwork requires experience rather than formal training.
- Competition is high for those looking to start their own leatherworking company.
Finding work as a leather worker may not be simple, but there are many lines of opportunity. From creating the material to becoming a full-time craftsman, there are many possibilities. With leatherworking being a trade career, those who hone their skills may find much more success.
- The Leather Industry – An Overview of Fascinating Facts
- Tannery – Exploring the Magic of Where Leather is Made
- Leathersmith – Their Career Path and Working Lifestyle
- The Incredible History of Leather and Leather Craft
- Leather Craftsman – What They Do and Employment Stats
- Leatherworker – Learn What They Do and Is It a Fit For You
- Leather Craft Ideas – Inspiration for Your Next Great Project
- Leather Factory – Where Leather Is Made and Sold
- Leather Museums – A Look Into History, Heritage, and Style