by Jill Peters

The first time I went shopping for leather, I went to JoAnn Fabric…a local fabric store in my area.  I wandered around, looking for someone to help me, and eventually was told that I wasn’t going to find what I needed there.  I think it was fate, because the lady I asked happened to be a former Art Institute student and she told me that for some of her projects, she would get leather at a place called MacPherson Leather on Capitol Hill in Seattle.  So off I went.  And when I walked into MacPherson Leather, I swear I could hear angels singing.  It was like Christmas morning, and I was 5 again.  But what I soon came to realize, is that I knew nothing about buying leather. 

Here is what I have learned along the way.

The Weight of Leather

What you are making helps determine the weight of the leather you need.  How you are making your project makes a difference too.  When I first started out, I wanted to make a patchwork tote bag.  I was using a regular sewing machine, which totally limited me to using really thin leather.  There used to be a place in Everett, Washington called Harry's Leather.  It was mostly for equestrian supplies, but I asked if they had any scraps of leather I could purchase.  The guy made his way around piles of stuff to the front of the store, weaving his way to an unmarked cardboard box full of just the scraps I wanted.  I was amazed that, in what looked like a completely disheveled mess to me, he knew right where to go.  Anyway, those scraps were exactly what I wanted for my first project.  Since then, I have switched to only stitching by hand, so I am able to use much thicker, more durable leather.

Here is a chart from Tandy Leather that shows the various weights and thicknesses of leather and what each is good for.  It also shows the parts of the hide.


The Size of Leather

The first time I went to an actual leather store to buy leather, I thought I could just say “I’d like this much”, and they would cut if for me and off I’d go.  Nope.  Typically, you have to buy the whole hide (see above), and as you can imagine, that’s a rather large piece of leather.  As the Tandy Leather chart above shows, there are other cuts of leather that are smaller, and they all have different characteristics.  Consider this when pricing out your project.  The hides are usually marked on the underside with the square footage.  But don’t let it deter you.  If you end up with a whole hide, it’s okay.  Once you have made your first leather bag, you’ll be hooked, and you’ll be able to find lots of other things to make.

The Language of Leather

There are many terms associated with leather.  Here are just a few.

  • Veg tanned: The method of tanning the cowhide into leather, using natural tannins, like tree bark.   This is one of the oldest methods of tanning and can be used to make thicker leather.  It tends to age well and develop a rich patina over time.
  • Chrome tanned: The method of tanning the cowhide into leather, using chromium salts.  This is a much quicker process than veg tanning, the leather weighs less and can be softened more easily.
  • Oil tanned: Oil tanning is an old method of turning a hide into leather by adding fish oil or other oils into a dried hide until they have replaced the natural moisture of the original piece.
  • Full grain: Full grain leather is smooth leather from the grain side of a hide, which has not been sanded.  It is considered to be of higher quality because the surface is more natural.
  • Patina: The process of aging on leather.
  • Side, Bend, Shoulder: Refers to the parts of the hide. Each has different characteristics.  See the Tandy Leather chart above.
  • Temper: The pliability or softness of the leather.
  • Pull-up finish: The behavior of leather that has been treated with oils, waxes, and dyes, that when pulled or stretched, the finish becomes lighter in those areas.
  • Top grain: A process of sanding away the natural grain from a leather’s top surface.
  • Weight: A term to describe the thickness of leather in ounces. One ounce equals 1/64th of an inch in thickness.

My Sources for Leather

Every maker of leather goods has their own favorites of where to buy leather, tools and hardware.  I prefer to shop in a store rather than online, as I like the opportunity to feel of it, as my Grandma Olga used to say.  Especially in the beginning, I think it’s important to handle the leather to feel its weight and finish.

1.  Maverick Leather – Bend, Oregon

A wonderful place to visit, with lots of helpful and knowledgeable staff.  Also has a useful website and a great Instagram.

2.  Macpherson Leather – Seattle, Washington

Small but always has what I need.  Lots of variety.  I have not used their website but love the store.

3.  Tandy Leather – Seattle, Washington

Great for hardware and tools.

Don’t be afraid to give leatherwork a try.  I am so glad I did.  And if you have any questions about it, let me know.  I’d be happy to help.