Cloth and Hide · Leathercraft

Foray into leather crafting

I took a course on leather crafting at Birdsall leather recently with a couple of mates. Being interested in menswear and shoes, learning to make stuff myself was a natural progression and leather crafting seemed DIY-worthy given the price of quality leather goods these days.

Birdsall is a 5th-generation leather tannery and supplier operating out of Botany, Sydney. The Birdsall family has been tanning leather since 1883. Botany used to be full of tanneries. In fact, the suburb was so smelly that nobody wanted to live there. Now Birdsall is one of two remaining tanneries in the state. Looking through the windows, you can see the giant tanning vats processing kangaroo hides. I mouthed an audible “Wooow!” as I stepped into the upstairs shop. The place was chock full of hides, leathers, hardware, equipment and showpieces. There were cow leathers, goat leathers, kangaroo leathers (of course!), fish leathers, eel leathers, chick feet leathers (yep, you read that right)…

It was actually a bit overwhelming at first. Where the hell do I start??

Luckily our beginner’s course took care of that. Silvia was our teacher for the 4-hour course and started off with some theory and a tour of the place. She explained the differences between vegetable tanned leather and chrome tanned leather both in terms of the process and what you can and can’t do with them (you can groove channels into vege-tan and apply dyes to them, whereas chrome-tanned leathers don’t accept dyes and are generally softer so you don’t groove before stitching or it might fall apart on you). We then filed into the workshop and spent the next couple of hours stamping, grooving, shaving, dying, antiquing, punching, stitching, and burnishing. We ended up with a leather coaster with a grooved and stitched border. The final product was not so important as the techniques learned along the way (although I thought mine looked pretty good and Silvia said my stitches were neat). The techniques were surprisingly easy to pick up, but like many other crafts, will probably take a lifetime to master. Silvia was a very patient (and funny) teacher and she’s been crafting leather for over 20 years. Her specialty is tooling, which is when you carve the leather and raise it to create patterns or pictures. She’s won prizes at the Royal Easter Show and some of her pieces are breathtaking.

Birdsall also offers other courses ranging from belt making to whip making to leather plaiting to leather tooling. There is also a week-long shoe making course which I am definitely extremely interested in.

After the lesson, I went back out to the shop, bought myself a set of basic tools, some leather scraps and waxed linen thread and herein begins my foray into leathercrafting! I’ve set up a little workstation in my garage since and made a little wrap for my tools. My first project will be a set of watch straps. Stay tuned…

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