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FAQ: Crafted by Hand or Machine Made?

Now that we’ve been working hands-on with leather for several years, we’re ruined as consumers of leather goods. When we see something in the store that’s labeled as “leather” we are often shocked by the poor quality, and how little people know about real leather these days. We see much more fake leather and bonded leather than actual leather.

If you’re in the US, there are some labeling requirements for leather but they’re pretty minimal. If it says “Genuine Leather” you can be sure that it’s pretty poor quality. If it says “Bonded Leather”, then you know that is basically just leather dust and glue, and if it says “Imitation Leather” or some such thing, then it is not leather at all, but plastic or vinyl that has been stamped to look like leather, and it will wear just as well as plastic or vinyl do. If you want to learn more about these kinds of leather, watch this excellent and hilarious video by leather bag designer Saddleback Leather.

But beyond the label, what if you just want to know whether the product was bench made or machine made? The best way to tell is to learn how to look critically at the piece. If you can unwrap it in your mind, you can tell if you’re looking at hand-crafted originality and quality, or machine-made shortcuts.

Here are some tips for differentiating between hand-crafted and machine-made:

Edge Treatment
We think of the edges of leather like trimwork in a house, except that the leather edges are meant to be regularly handled and touched. They should be beautiful, tactile, and durable. Here’s what to look for:

Color Treatment.
Leather is colored using any of several different dyes, and the method of dyeing used speaks volumes about how much hands-on time the maker is spending on the product and the choices they make. Bridle leather and other pre-colored leathers are dyed – and also sometimes waxed – by tumbling whole hides in drums filled with dyes and waxes. The cheapest and least effective method of dyeing is painting the surface with an airbrush. Finally, you can hand-rub in oil dyes. The difference between airbrushing and hand-dyeing is like the difference between marinating a chicken by pouring salt and spices on top, or rubbing it in to every nook and cranny, working the salt into the meat.

Leather stitching carries extra importance in the durability of the product. In crafting leather goods, the placement of stitch holes is un-doable. When stitching fabric with a machine, the needle can pierce through the weave without leaving an indelible mark, but in leather once the hole is punched you can’t unpunch it. Stitching can be the weakest spot of a leather good, so it’s important that it’s done right.

Armed with this knowledge, you are now prepared to examine your next leather good critically and get a glimpse into the production methods and care used in creating them!

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