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Tradition, Work and Leather Design: The vintage work bag unlocked – Part 1

January 4, 2011

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.

A French beauty...E.D.F. tool bag made by SAIC Villeneuve de Berg, probably 1950's. Private collection.

And here’s the imprint.

S.A.I.C. Villeneuve de Berg 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.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Chris permalink
    May 27, 2011 6:31 am

    Hello,

    The picture of imprint above shows the different stitching direction / / / / / from me and most of us \ \ \ \ \ . I was wondering if you could tell me how to do the saddle stitch in that way. I tried many ways but can’t get the result / / / / / … I don’t know if it’s the wrong needle / awl size or the wrong needle position, wrong knot methods … Please tell me. Thank you.

    Chris

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