This was the first bag I made, the one to replace my other satchel that broke. It’s about 6-7 years old now, and it’s been my daily bag ever since. It’s taken a bit of a beating, but it’s very sturdy and durable, and the leather has a lovely worn patina to it now.
Deciding what leather to use wasn’t a big issue. It had to be at least 3.omm thick, and veg tanned, and preferably a bridle or strap/harness leather. The choices were either Astley’s or Sedgwicks or local Australian hides from Birdsall’s Leather. A saddler showed me some Astley’s bridle back, which comes from New Zealand, and it was beautiful and buttery and not too much tallow. Sedgwicks is from Walsall in the UK. Both were quite expensive at the time, so I had to look for an alternative, and then someone suggested using Italian Double shoulder, a belt leather. Much more economical, at less than half the price…can’t say you can compare them though, because the double shoulder has a lot shorter wear-in factor. meaning it gets soft and pliable relatively quickly. And of course it comes from a different part of the cow’s hide.
The double shoulder is not as dense or as heavy to hand as English bridle leathers. It’s certainly more pliable, and gives to cutting and hand stitching relatively easily. Grain direction is more noticeable and it’s more fibrous, when cut. Still tough work though.
I wanted to keep the design minimal and simple. The straps on the lower side of the gusset were originally designed to close a leather strap along the base of the bag to give it extra support, but as I was playing with mock-ups it didn’t warrant it. So in the end I left it as a visual accent.
The buckles are stirrup buckles, nickle on brass for the side straps, and a standard West End buckle for front closure. Dee rings are saddlery-standard mid-weight English cast brass, nickel plated.
As already mentioned in previous posts, simplicity is best…always, I think. For me the focus is on shape, the inherent qualities of the materials, and how hardware and fittings can be designed and work to enhance these. It’s about working with as few elements as possible and using the strengths of each to greatest effect. Each should be a bold feature…the stitching, buckles and fittings, and the leather.
A lot of contemporary leather bag design is about ‘representing’ a label’s direction, and in some cases it really works. Recently, several months ago now, I saw a John Varvatos satchel that really worked as a piece. Strong and robustly made, it had a presence. A Tanner Krolle satchel I saw a few years ago was superb. Made from fine English bridle back it was beautifully made, hand stitched and simple in style. But many others limp along in the same old vain…overdone with detail, not well made, and use bog standard materials.
There’s been a tendency to throw in far too much detail, most of it useless and downright ugly, and there’s little design rationale for it being there anyway. Ironic considering that it’s ‘designed’ to be user friendly or functional. Most bags/satchels have no stand-weight, by which I mean the main trunk of the bag can’t hold all the detailing and flops down like a bean bag…terrible. But then considering the leathers and construction methods being used it’s not surprising.
No doubt there many fine examples..I just haven’t seen them yet. I’m getting the feeling that a small and very dedicated and inventive scene is emerging making their own, doing everything from designing, pattern cutting, creating little zines and look books ( which I hope to do soon )….even making their own fittings from scratch. Doing it all by hand. It’s the only way to do it right, and to keep old skills alive and kicking.
I was keen to use Connolly’s bridle leather for ages, after a saddler told me it was good to work with, not as waxy or heavily tallowed as Sedgwicks, but it’s very hard to get hold of, especially in Australia. But H Leffler and Sons in Melbourne, the place I go to for bridle leather, told me they had one Connolly hide left over from an old shipment, a light bridle back in London Tan with pig-print. Heavily discounted I jumped at it and made another version of the ‘Gypser’. I’m told that Connolly have stopped making saddlery and bridle leathers, which is a tragedy because its very fine stuff to work with.
This is the result…
The gusset form, ring attachments or chapes and side-strap shown in detail.
The Connolly hide was 4.0mm thick so it was a tough job stitching and aligning the panels, to make the edges look tight and smooth.
The front view…flat edge front flap with gentle curve to straight sides, no scalloped edge as in Gypser model below.
Another view showing the dee-ring set-up on the gusset
The basic specs are the same as that for the “Gypser’ model posted earlier, except for the following details:
- I made both D-rings by hand from scratch, starting from a master copy carved in jewellers wax, then cast in brass, cleaned, polished and then finally plated in Rhodium.
- the dee-ring set-up is for a chape hand-stitched and riveted to the gusset, rather than the gusset top loop back inside and stitched that way.
- Gusset is one continuous panel, at 130 mm wide.
This is only a base model, so obviously elements can be changed to suit the wearer/carrier. More details to come…
Ambling along King St one day between St Peters and Camperdown, the shoulder strap on my beloved satchel broke…well and truly, unfixable. The leather had torn and the gusset had split. I’d found it almost new in at Tempe Tip a large Salvo’s shop for 3 dollars, and used it every day. Battered, stained by grease and sweat, the front buckle was the first to go…Made from bog standard chrome tanned leather, Honey Tan in colour and machine sewn in a factory. It wasn’t an artisans finest work by any means, nor was it made by an artisan, resembling more like those tooled bags you see in 70’s DIY leathercraft books. But it became my favourite bag. Now in bag heaven.
So I needed to find a replacement, and since I couldn’t order a bespoke piece from Tanner Krolle or Hermes just yet I had to look elsewhere..nothing close. Nylon and synthetics – even synthetic leathers – up n down the High Street. But what I was looking for wasn’t here…anymore. Victorian quality leather bags had disappeared from the bagosphere decades ago. Then it dawned..make it myself. If you really want something made the way you want it, make it your self. And that’s how it started for me….at least that’s part of the story.
The queue waiting for the bus on Oxford St into the city was getting longer. After a long day of drawing and painting at the National Art School I was pretty buggered. I noticed a young guy crouch down and open his bag to get out a ciggie..not a beaten old North Face backback you’d normally see, but a large leather satchel. It caught my eye…It was very big. Simple boxy shape, amply proportioned, and made from thick cow hide. It was a handsome piece and definitely hand crafted. The satchel was something you’d never see on a Sydney street. The bag would have required careful planning and thought, an acute knowing of what you wanted and an aesthetic that was more Edwardian and industrial, than now. So it was sheer coincidence and luck that I saw him. A kindred spirit…? Perhaps. I hoped.
Before I could accost him to find out where he got it and who made it…he scrambled onto a bus and that was that. A month later I was browsing the vintage boot rack in Zoo Emporium on Crown Street, Surry Hills, and there he was again…his bag on the floor next to the counter. But when I turned round he was gone…I rushed out and he’d gone from sight!
So from then on I called him the ‘Satchel man’…I kept glimpsing him for months afterwards, walking around Surry Hills still thinking of that bag and how I wanted to make one just like it. I finally plucked up enough courage to ask him where he got the bag made..he told me an old guy at a local craft market made it, and that the guys at Serpentine Leather Galleries in Enmore had made him a few more bags. Mystery solved..in a way. I bored my friends with the story and they laughed..’the satchel man?’, that’s you isn’t it, always walking round with your leather bags…he’s just your doppelganger’. This was way back in 1997….
Only in recent months do connections become clearer. The EDF bag I posted below comes from the same pedigree and aesthetic lineage….the hand crafted, hand stitched workers bag.
…and one last view
Warm thanks to Peaudane60, copyright.
A few more years passed of lurking and tinkering round the leather and bag scene. I scribbled a messy little thumbnail drawing on the back of shopping list while talking on the phone…a boy striding along with a large satchel slung over his shoulder. I made nothing of it, but kept it in my diary ‘just in case’. After I made my first ‘test’ bags I found the scribble again and it later became the symbol for ‘Leatherpress’…WalkingBoy bags started to take shape and took it’s first little steps.
Base Specifications for the ‘Gypser’
- Tan veg-tanned cow hide, Italian double-shoulder. 3.2mm thick
- Hand-stitched using Bonded Nylon Italian made thread
- Height 360mm, Width 360mm, Depth 120mm
- Nickel on Solid Brass Stirrup buckles, medium weight nickel on brass Dee-rings, English made.
- Side adjuster straps
- Scalloped flap edges for easy opening and closure
These are the basic specs, but any saddlery or belt leather can be used, from a variety of colours. Hardware is saddlery-grade harness and stirrup buckles. I prefer to use nickel or rhodium finish on cast brass for fittings.
The ‘Gypser’ is a simple one compartment style satchel with side adjuster straps. Again I used Italian tanned and dyed Double shoulder cow hide. On the model above I used a two piece gusset stitched and riveted at the base. Another model I made without the seam gives a more pleasing finish and I’ll post images of that soon. It’s reminiscent of Victorian-era English cartridge or hunting cases that were essentially a large pouch or box, sometimes with inset compartments, with minimal detailing and simple in style. This was one of the earlier bags I made in the series. More later.
A few words about vintage work bags. These have been my passion for a long time, and what inspired/motivated me to start making my own bags.
The relationship between saddlery and case-making, and the emergence of an atelier based leather goods industry in the mid-19th century is well understood, but poorly documented or researched. One of the curious facts that motivated me to write this journal was how sadly overlooked the industrial work bag is any in writing to do with vintage work wear, and the development of leather bag design. To me the work bag and case are as iconic of late 19th-early 20th century industrial working culture, as any other item of workwear of the period.
By contrast that other iconic tradition, the leather jacket , is very well documented, by very dedicated and passionate people researching it’s history, production methods, leathers, styles…Compare the books, websites, online forums, magazines, specialist shops dedicated to authentically creating reproduction motorcycle jackets, flight jackets and vintage outerwear, and anything and all things worker wear. Right now it’s like a second sunrise for vintage work wear. So what about bags? More on that later…
In design terms they show an amazing complexity contained in such a compact portable space, and the methods used to create them are equally complex and very challenging. Given their simplicity, the design is even more beautiful considering the challenges of creating a bag that’s both durable, easy to use/access. Functional necessity worked hand in hand with aesthetics.
When I started looking at old photos of rail yards, postal workers, electricians, factory workers in steel works or car assembly plants or even stockman, what intrigued and fascinated me were the bags and cases they were carrying, which were often as important as anything they were wearing, if not more so. Their bag kept their tools of trade. I wondered who made them, trying to picture the workshops, machinery, tools, leather aprons tied firm, racks of leather and hardware etc. These places have long since gone from the landscape, and are slowly fading from memory, as many of the old artisans have retired or are passing away. Reason aplenty to keep these traditions alive..or what’s left of them.
S.A.I.C. Villeneuve de Berg, was a French maker of tool bags and kit bags. Don’t know much about them, except they can be dated to at least the 1950’s and probably much earlier. The tool bags were big and quite heavy. Not really for your daily carrier, but these were standard kit for electricians and plumbers.
And here’s the imprint.
many thanks to Peaudane60.
These bags have some unique details….
a formed metal corner and ‘foot’ plate, with pressed channel that acts as a foot to protect the base, usually made from aluminium; two thin leather straps sewn and riveted along the length of the base for added structural support to the base. Reinforced gusset panels with extended top-arc to support front flap when closed…
twin strap closure on flap….with crew-slots for straps and riveted using an interesting feature: nickel cup washer fixed by copper post rivet. This was a distinctive feature of French makers…I’ve not seen it on other tool bags.
…and leather was a hefty saddlery hide, 4.5 – 5mm thick..so they were quite heavy and bulky to carry….some of these models also had two leather slots fastened on the back so the bag could be attached to a person’s belt and carried on the hip while they were working!
The closing of traditional atelier style workshops eventually saw the demise of the bespoke leather bag or case. In London the rot started in the 50’s, with many closing their doors by the 60’s, while in Paris it was probably a bit earlier. I can’t be sure but the more research I do I’ll dig up facts to better confirm it, and I’ll post up. My vision of the Fin de Siecle city is that of small leather workshops producing bespoke bags and boots, next to coffee shops, bookbinders, harness makers, glovers and milliners, and bespoke tailors facing narrow winding streets of the Quartiers. A romantic construction for sure, but not that far from reality, or at least that was late medieval Paris before the wrecking ball spoiled it all…
When I started thinking about the history of bag making and the relationship between tool bags, working culture and the history of workwear, one of the questions that came up was, ‘is the bag just part of workers wear or does it have a distinct place as a cultural marker?’ To me the answer was kind of obvious, but I needed more information. Then I realised that the makers of these bags were highly skilled artisans, most probably from saddlery and harness making traditions, who transferred their skills to bag and case making. This transference of skill would have required a lot of innovation, new skills development, advances in new techniques and methods, and advances in leather technology, to meet the demands of industrial trades that required bags to be portable tool shops for the worker. It’s known that with the slow retreat of horse drawn transport, many saddlers geared their production to cater for the emerging luxury traveller, brought about by grand ocean liners, intercontinental railways, and motor cars, and bespoke case making came into it’s own.
Then try and find information on how these bags were made. Researching techniques, methods, styles and how they originated, is frustrating initially because it’s not something found in manuals. I wish it was, as it would at least be a hard copy record of knowledge younger designers/makers could use. Finding out exactly who made them is equally frustrating, because the records are scant, or require a lot of effort to track down..and then you realise that many are now passed on. Mostly it’s through talking to artisans and master saddlers about their trade that you start a conversation that moves to demonstrating and practicing, which can then evolve into a rich and rewarding friendship. This is how knowledge has been transferred from generation to generation, through apprenticeship and hard work over along period of time. It’s a very ancient art with time honoured traditions. Perhaps this is the reason, the long time it takes to get really good at it, that few are taking it up. The time it takes to perfect a row of stitches Iphone6 will have come out.
Enough of the history lesson. Back to drawings and cutting patterns.
This satchel was one of the first in the series that focused on classical shapes and work bags from the early 20th century. It differs slightly in design in that it has softer curvier lines rather than the box-like feel of other satchels I’ve made. It’s made from Italian Double-shoulder veg tanned cowhide, 3.2 mm thick in Tan colour. It’s tanned and finished to be used as a belt leather but it’s wonderful as a bag leather as it softens relatively quickly compared to other waxy and heavily curried saddle and bridle leathers. More details are below.
Leatherpress began in 2005 with the aim of making leather satchels and bags the traditional way. My mission was to create a unique series of bags that were completely handcrafted. Using the finest saddlery leathers each bag was cut, stitched and assembled by hand.
The project began when i first started making my own bags, but soon people asked me to make them special one-off pieces.I didn’t intend to produce many bags, just a few for myself, but the more I studied and practiced i began to explore a tradition that was rich in design, skill and beauty. So I decided to explore different leathers, shapes and discovered how endless the possibilities were. Each commissioned work emerged from hand drawn designs and patterns, and went through numerous hand held processes to produce a truly personal bag.
During this time i began designing my own collection of bags and this journal aims to catalogue some of this work. Its also a way of recording and documenting the design and making process. Equally I wanted to explore and celebrate the work of artisans from previous generations, especially the Victorian era case-makers and saddlers who have shaped the way I think about my work. They were true innovators and helped develop an aesthetic and level of craftsmanship that few people today can emulate.
What fascinated me most were the old work bags, postal satchels, tool and kit bags used by electricians, plumbers and railway workers. They’re an integral part of an industrial working culture that’s now long gone, but the bags have endured longer than their owners and makers. The skills of these makers are also passing away, and sadly even fading from memory. For ‘old trades’ like saddlery and case-making the skills need to be passed on, literally handed-on, to newer generations for it to survive and grow. I’m hoping that this blog will go a little way to helping this fine old tradition continue for a while yet.
A saddler once told me ‘ten days to learn, ten years to master’. He said that’s what he was told as an apprentice: even when you think you know it, the leather will tell you otherwise, and you have to work at it again and again. It’s as much about the process as the result. The relationship between hand, eye and leather takes a long time to develop. It can take years of practice and pain before a row of stitches looks and feels right. With a bit of persistence and hard work the results can be wonderful.