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Leatherwork, a Centuries-old Craft

Story by Penny Swift

creative leatherwork


Leather is man’s oldest “fabric” having been used since the Stone Age, more than 25 centuries ago.

Man used leather hides and skins to make clothing, and also for practical items , for instance to carry water, tools, and bows and arrows.

Picture left: Beautiful leather craft by King’s X in Texas.

Leather and Tanning

Leather is a hide or skin that has been preserved using a chemical process we call tanning – to prevent the leather from rotting. Essentially, tanning stops the leather from drying out  or deteriorating if it is exposed to water. It also helps to keep leather porous.

We aren’t exact sure how prehistoric man tanned leather, but they probably used a process similar to the one developed by North American Indians.

What they did was to stack the skins and hides, or bury them partially to get rid of the hair, which would loosen as the skin began to deteriorate. Then they soaked it in a solution made with water and ash produced by burning wood. After some time, they would clean the surfaces by scraping the hair of the skins using sharp bone or flint knives.

Once clean, the tanning process was started by sprinkling the leather with a type of wood powder containing tannin (which is where the name comes from). Then the Indians rubbed the skins with a rather revolting oily compound made from animal fats and brains. Later they would soften the leather further by hand. The final part of the process entailed smoking the skins over a smoldering fire for a few days.

There are other traditional tanning methods too:

  • Eskimos used fish oils
  • Ancient Chinese cured skins and hides in mud that was mixed with alum salts
  • Hebrews used oak bark – a great source of tannin

In the 19th century splitting machines made it possible to remove the hair and split the skin into specific thicknesses. Chrome was also used to speed up the tanning process and produce a softer, more supple material.

If you want to tan your own leather, you’ll find some relatively simple instructions here.

Different Types of Leatherwork

Once you have the leather, there are a variety of different skills that are required to work with it, depending on the kind of item you are making, and the type of leather you have.

These include:

  • cutting leather by hand – which can be a remarkably painstaking task
  • skivving leather to thin it – for instance where it is to be folded
  • edging the leather to round it or bevel it
  • stitching two or more pieces of leather together
  • sewing and lacing leather using a variety of different options including running stitch, backstitch, saddler’s stitch and whipstitch
  • decorating the leather by stamping, flat modeling, or painting

A Few Modern Day Leatherworking Tools


Favorite Leatherwork Projects

leatherwork beltThere are many different things you can make from leather including belts, jackets, shoes and sandals, and many other items from key holders and book covers, to gun holsters and even furniture.

You will often find handmade leather items at craft markets.





Reference: Readers Digest Crafts & Hobbies – A Step-by-Step guide to Creative Skills.
& Wiki Commons.


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