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Leather Making in Florence

DIY Sep 24, 2015

Florence Leather School

If you’ve been tuning in here for a while you’ll know that second to crafting, travel is my passion. I love discov­ering new places and having experiences I never could at home. But sometimes I spend so much time online when on the road that I can miss experiences right in front of me. It’s ridiculous! Are you the same as me? Do you find yourself staring at your phone when you should be looking out the window?

As part of my ongoing focus this year on finding balance between the online and offline world (remember this post), I recently got together with Cathay Pacific to launch their #onedayoffline campaign. To really get into the spirit of the #onedayoffline concept, I traveled to Italy, Florence in fact. As the global capital of leather artisans, the gorgeous city has been on my radar for a very long time. I had to pinch myself once I realised I would be spending one glorious day learning the secrets of the leather trade with leather artisans. To be honest, I could have stayed a year but I’m definitely not complaining.

By some miracle, I was able to get into the Florence School of Leather, which is THE place to learn the secrets of this artisan trade. Established after World War Two as a leather training college for war orphans, and now cater­ing to students from all over the world, the ‘Scuola del Cuoio’ is the heart of traditional leather craft in this city. I went offline for a day and got a private training course from one of their artisans.

Not only was there so much knowledge to drink in, so much to see, but being offline while I did it allowed my creative juices to flow. It was one of the most amazing expe­riences I’ve had in a very long time.

What would you do with your one day offline? Head to the #onedayoffline website to make your pledge.

The tools of the trade.

Gorgeous Florence (guide coming soon!)

View from the Duomo

From a few of your comments on social media I know many of you are incredibly interested in doing some sort of leather course like this, and I think you should! I took the one day course (sadly we were tight on time!), but the school offers these types of courses as well as longer intensive study over 3 and 6 months. It’s not exactly cheap, but if you’re looking to become a professional I would say it’s a good investment.

During my course, I made a leather journal and also learnt a range of different techniques needed to work with leather on both big and small projects. All of these techniques given me a much greater understanding of leather as a medium – I can’t wait to experiment more! A few takeaways:

Choosing Leather

One of the best things I learnt was how to better choose leather for a project. Obviously this comes down to matching leather with what you’re making. This will depend firstly on the leather thickness, which will effect how pliable it is or how much movement the leather allows. Secondly, it’ll come down to the type of leather. There are lots of different types but they can be roughly split into two groups: those that come from the topside of the leather (often more sturdy – you’ll be able to see the pores of the skin) and those like suede and nubuck that that originate from the layer below (and are a little bit velvet like).

Cutting Leather

In the past when I’ve cut leather for projects I’ve used scissors, but soon learnt in Florence that it’s a completely no no. The action of snipping away means your lines move and curve in the wrong direction. Instead, a ruler or template should be used with a scalpel or rotary cutter. Florence Leather school obviously had a zillion different tools of every possible task at hand, but I think at home (or in the studio) these two cutting tools are a good place to start.

Using a Cardboard Pattern (or ‘Form’)

So it turns out that the beautiful cardboard patterns hanging all over the walls in the Florence Leather School aren’t there just to be B roll for my video – they serve a traditional function. All the bags in the main gallery and in their store have been made using these cardboard patterns. After making the cardboard form of the pattern you can use it over and over again to trace the outline. You just place the cardboard form onto the leather and hold firmly with one hand and then use the other hand to cut the leather according to the pattern, by placing the blade as close as possible.

Pressing Leather

One thing I found fascinating is that in professional bag making, once you’ve cut your pattern it is pressed using a special pressing machine, essential rolled between to rollers so that the leather is of a uniform thickness all over. This was a surprise to me as I had no idea this is part of the making process, and I can understand why home made leather products are generally more rustic.

Finishing the edges of leather

I’m a bit of a perfectionist, and have always wanted to know how to create that perfect bought-in-a-boutique feel for my leather projects. One place my projects always seem to let me down is their edges, professional pieces always have perfectly finished edges that wear well over time. Turns out this is because of two factors – the edges are beveled (cut on an angle) and treated with a glue mix to seal and then burnished (fancy word for rubbed) so they shine. A process that’s completely worth it!

These are just a few of the things I learnt on my #onedayoffline, I can only imagine how much you would learn in a whole semester!

The centuries old building of the leather school made it an awe inspiring experience.

Admiring the work station of one of the master artisans

Not a bad place to spend a day!

The space was just so atmospheric.

Due to the location on the river, Florence has been the home of leather tanneries forever, which helped create this centuries old industry.

Starting the process of making my journal.

Learning to use the right tools (and trying not to smash my finger!).

Walls of forms for making bags.

Completely handmade bag designs in the school.

The finished product of my journal.

This post is in collaboration with Cathay Pacific.

Tags Italy Leather Traditi traditional crafts travel
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