by Willow Enright
When I first dreamt of working with leather I was overwhelmed by the vast amount of choices. Where should I buy the leather? How will I know if it is the right thickness? Can’t I just re-use something I already have? Is there such a thing as that perfect leather hide? I admit that this dilemma is inevitable if you plan to work with leather. I’ll also admit that most leather workers have their own opinions about which is best. My answer is, do what works for you.
There are a few choices when it comes to where you might find quality leather. In store leather suppliers are a great place to find good hides, another is online stores, and even thrift shops can be useful. Unfortunately leather stores aren’t readily available, and most folks won’t have the opportunity to go into a store in person. However, if you are lucky enough to live near one, go! I live in Seattle, so I have two available choices, Tandy Leather and Mac Pherson’s Leather Co. The best way to figure out which leather you need is to go in person to see, touch, and experience it for yourself. There’s nothing quite like fondling leather.
Out of the two stores, I prefer Tandy Leather. They have everything clearly labeled with their three tier prices, regular, gold, and elite. If you don’t have a business license and haven’t purchased a membership, then you’ll be a regular priced buyer. This is nice because you don’t have to guess, wonder, or ask about the prices for most things. Sometimes you still have to ask about the leather hides, depending on the store layout. I find them to be slightly less expensive than Mac Pherson’s, and also have various specials going on fairly regularly, which are valid both in store and online.
When using the internet option to buy leather my choice location is eBay. I really like the option of watching lots of various pieces of leather hides and seeing how they are priced. It really gives you a feel for how much you are going to get for the price you are spending. Be sure to look for the leather hide’s actual size measurements in inches or centimeters, and not square feet. (Unless you are familiar with buying fabric this way.) Sometimes they will use a 12”x 12” tile on the floor and lay the leather down over them for reference, or simply use a tape measure. My favorite leather seller on eBay is theleatherguyofmn. He has really nice hides that are well priced, and his shipping isn’t out of control. I’ve purchased numerous hides from his Minnesota based store, and have never had a problem with the condition of the leather or how it arrives.
There are times when your budget is super limited but you still want to rock some unique leathers. This is when you get extra creative and dig through your closet or hit up a thrift store. You can find all sorts of clothing made out of some form of leather-ish material. Try to find items labeled: Genuine leather (usually has a suede side or feeling to it,) Real Leather, Top/Full grain leather, Made with animal products. These are more likely to be real leather. You can rip up suede skirts, alter leather gloves or boots, and repurpose leather belts.
Knowing and understanding the different thicknesses of leather is important. You can buy leather from a 1oz - 16oz thickness. The smaller the ounce number the thinner the material will be, and subsequently the larger the number the thicker it will be. If you are making a fitted leather vest you’ll likely want something in the 1-3oz range, and if you are looking for SCA approved armor then you’ll want 12-16oz leather. If you are doing belts, holsters, or LARP armor then a 7-9oz works well, and for bags and purses using a 4-5oz is nice.
Everyone wants to find that unblemished, perfectly-colored leather in the exact thickness that will work for your project. You want it to magically show itself to you for next to nothing in cost. It’s good to dream, and sometimes they do come true. I’m more of a “My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground” kind of person. (William Shakespeare Sonnet 130) I’m fond of the imperfections and scars that show up in leather hides because they were the skins of an animal, and they don’t have perfect skin. Every piece of leather offers up a different texture, and in my opinion the blemishes just add character to your finished project. I try to keep these in mind when looking for my leather, because sometimes you see the perfect project based on the leather’s uniqueness.
So now that we’ve touched on where you should buy leather, and how to know the right thickness, and that a perfect leather hide often has flaws you can use. You can check your closet for something you already have to rip up, or go Macklemore style “I’m gonna pop some tags,
Only got twenty dollars in my pocket. I'm hunting, looking for a come-up,” or you can venture out and begin from scratch. You’ve just learned the basics on where to start, and now all you need is the vision. Happy hunting!
I started crafting out of leather in 2011, and now I am making it my life's work. I am writing this blog to help myself remember some of the small steps in past projects, sharing my triumphs and failures, as well as my love of leather.