Leatherworking Is the New Meditation
Sometimes it takes a couple bruises to find joy…
Like so many, I spent much of the past year inside. Inside my house, inside my bedroom, inside my own mind—and I was willing to do just about anything to get out. I tried jogging (an unmitigated disaster, runner’s high is a myth) and baking bread (turned a sourdough into a flatbread). I even tried yoga (fell asleep) and teaching myself to code (also fell asleep). Suffice to say, I was failing spectacularly at finding a pandemic hobby that could get me out of bed in the morning.
I decided to turn back to my creative home base—making art. Years had passed since I last dabbled in sewing, painting, and pottery; and to be sure, I did enjoy teaching myself new stitches, experimenting with different paints and canvases, and manipulating clay into funny-shaped pots. But none of those activities struck a chord; I knew I needed a new challenge.
Enter leatherworking. I figured the activity would manage to keep my hands busy and mind focused for at least a few hours a week—a fun little diversion to break up the mundanity of pandemic living. Instead, what began on a whim soon morphed into an all-consuming beast of a hobby.
Over the span of days, I dove deep into the history of leatherworking, scouring websites for insights into choosing the right cut of leather, the right weight. Vegetable or chrome tanned? Full grain or top grain? Single or double shoulders? Double bend, or double butt? My vigorous investigations kept me up at night. Illuminated by the dim light of my laptop and powered by the (slightly troubling) fierceness of my newfound fascination, I filled my Tandy Leather cart up with tooling leather pieces, suede scraps, scratch awls, round knives, stitching needles, and thread. My shopping cart total? Unspeakable. I comforted myself with the knowledge that I at least already owned a pair of trusty crafting scissors.
As my obsession with manipulating tanned cowhide grew, small practice projects took over my workbench. And as my leatherworking tools and materials piled up, our study, much to my partner’s dismay, started smelling less like home and more like the inside of a shoe repair shop. In a bid to regain their favor, I announced that my first big project would be a custom-fitted knife sheath for my outdoors-loving partner.
Pencil in hand, I eagerly began sketching out design blueprints. The shape would be simple and the clasp intuitive, the dye a tasteful golden brown to mimic the color of sun-soaked tree bark. The stud screw would be a muted bronze, to quietly elevate the piece while still complementing my chosen shade of dye. I tested different leather weights, seeking out the perfect balance between durability and flexibility in my chosen cut, settling on a gorgeous piece of 4-5oz vegetable-tanned leather.
Finally, it was time to begin. I was ready for this—how hard could it be? Days one and two flew by; I cut out paper templates for each piece of leather to be sliced. I snipped, measured, and snipped again. I wet-molded leather with surprising finesse. The pieces started falling in place—more and more I could start to see my vision emerging from the scraps of leather. By day three, I had really hit my stride, and was ready to rush towards the finish line. I grabbed my chisel and mallet and started swinging, making neat little holes for later threading. One, two, three—and suddenly, blinding pain. I had managed to smack my mallet not onto my chisel, but onto my poorly positioned pointer finger.
Reader, I cried. I very nearly gave up. I sat at my workbench, nursing my bruised and bloody finger, wondering why I was even doing this at all. Surely, there were hobbies out there that didn’t involve the risk of bodily injury. But as I took stock of my work bench, the little unfinished leather pieces strewn out in front of me, I could feel my frustration melting away.
I had set out on this leatherworking journey to find a hobby to pass the time, and instead found an art form that engaged my mind and set my soul on fire. But in attempting to rush to the project’s finish line, I had not only become mindless about my work, but I was also missing out on the joyous experience of meticulously bringing my artistic vision to life. Why rush through that?
Once my finger healed, I got right back to work. Instead of resenting the tedium of punching hole after hole, I started to view it as a form of meditation. After so many months of anxiety and stress, living life as a clenched fist, I welcomed the opportunity to rest my mind. With each saddle stitch, stroke of the wool dauber smoothly depositing layers of dye, and rub of my burnisher, I got closer and closer to a state of internal peace. Leatherworker’s high, I realized. And it wasn’t just from the dye fumes.
I ended up finishing that knife sheath just a couple days after our anniversary, and it hasn’t left my partner’s belt since. But more vitally, the joy I feel while leatherworking has remained with me since that very first project. What next? Perhaps a purse to rival that of Hermès; I have a list of projects as long as my arm and all the energy, inspiration, and passion to see them through.