Caveat Emptor: Quality of Leather Accessories

A Primer on Hallmarks of Quality

Men's and Women's Leather Accessories

by Alexander Kabbaz, Master Bespoke Clothier

To steal a phrase from Capital One spokespersons Samuel L. Jackson and Jennifer Garner, "What Is Your Wallet?"

Do you know?

The saying from Ephemerides, "you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear", refers to the quality of materials being used. This article is about the craftsperson's use of those materials to create a quality - or not quality - product.

Enter the studio of any fine leather craftsperson and this is what you'll see. The cutting block where it all begins, some patterns, and a myriad of tools of the trade. I share the one to the right with Larry Bridges, our in-house leather craftsman and expert at turning raw edges into beautiful pieces ... but more about that later.

In this article you'll learn many of the important quality characteristics to look for and short explanations as to why these are important.

Though I'll use the construction of men's braces and women's handbags as my primary examples, know that most of the same shortcuts are used in briefcases, small leather goods such as wallets, and soft-sided luggage.

Leather Craftperson's Cutting Block

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Leather Craftperson's Cutting Block ...Explained

Consider the unique similarity among the accessories I mentioned: All are made from a combination of leather and fabric. What is the overarching difference between leather (or exotic skins) and fabric? While leather can just be cut into shape and remain functional, the raw edges of cut fabric absolutely must be turned and stitched or the yarns will unravel.

Here lies most leather craftsperson's greatest weakness and my number one complaint: The raw edges of "finished" leather products.

Leather can - and should, have its raw, cut edges turned under just like fabric:

  • It is significantly more attractive
  • It is more durable
  • It is a hallmark of quality

Raw Edged Brace Fittings vs. Turned Edges

The additional effort which goes into this higher quality method of creating leather items requires a number of usually ignored factors:

  • Turning raw edges requires years of talent and training
  • Turning raw edges requires an enormous amount of time
  • Turning is a unique skill requiring strong hands and nimble fingers
  • Time costs money - especially for talented craftspeople

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Here in our bespoke workrooms, turning leather is not done only for the foregoing reasons. It is simply a matter of pride.

It may be more difficult, more costly, and require more time, but I hope you'll agree that the result is worth the effort.

Look for a moment at the way the overwhelming majority of leather goods are made these days.

Component leather pieces are usually die-cut and hole-punched en-masse by a machine called a "clicker", often without regard to where on the skin the piece is placed. Knowing which scars, scuffs, and other unsightly imperfections in the leather will end up in the finished pieces is impossible when die-cutting many layers at the same time.

Once cut, a minimally trained sewing machine operator throws in a few stitches and the piece is "ready" to go.

Mass-cutting Leather Pieces

This can't be emphasized strongly enough, for it is the greatest cost-cutting measure of all. Yes, some may use cowhide where calfskin would have been better, thus saving half or more on the cost of materials. Significantly more expensive lambskin, with it's so-soft surface, is often a more beautiful and higher quality selection than cowhide. But it needs a woven (cloth) backing for strength which is yet another expense. But let's face it - saving a few bucks on materials vs. saving hours of expensive, highly skilled labor is but a small thing.

Examine for a moment the process of turning leather edges.

Unlike fabric which is simply turned or seamed and sewn, leather often needs the advance preparation of skiving before it can be turned.

Notice the fraying of the raw-edged braces buttoner

Skiving is the process - best done by a skilled leatherworker's hands - of trimming the under-surface of the cut edge to make it thinner and more pliable.

One slip of the skiving knife will remove a chunk rather than a sliver and the cut piece instantly becomes garbage.

But without the thinning, the edge would be thick and hard, making the finished product both ugly and stiff.

This becomes especially difficult on the harder skins such as alligator which require the skill of only the most talented ... and even more so when one factors in that a cut piece of alligator can cost 10-20 times that of a piece of leather.

An Alligator Braces Yoke: Cut, Skived, Backed, and Turned

Some makers will go one extra step with raw-edged products. The will use an "edge-coat" dye to color the raw edge so that it matches the leather color. Although better than the plain, uncolored raw edge, edge coating eventually wears off, especially at points of stress.

Edge-Coat color wearing off due to abrasion from the buckle

Leather and Skin Thickness - A Matter of Strength

A second issue to be aware of involves the use of thinner leathers and exotics such as Teju lizard. Snakeskin is especially susceptible. In these cases, strength can be an issue.

The solution is simple but often ignored in the quest to economize by using raw edges. These materials need a dimensionally strong backing layer. Some makers solve this issue by gluing the skin to a leather, cloth, or other substrate type of backing prior to cutting. This, again, permits the use of raw, rather than turned, edges. These are even uglier because, as time passes and the adhesive strength decreases, edge separation and fraying are often the result.
The proper method is to cut a larger piece from the skin, skive the edges, glue in the backing, and, after turning the edge under, following it wherever possible with a stitch.
Visible vs. Hidden - Are They Equally Important? As an artisan of more than five decades (ouch!), my final issue lies in what is normally visble vs. what is not seen except by the wearer.
It is a maxim of the best makers that no matter what part of an item a client looks at it will be pleasing to the eye. This means, quite simply, that what the outside observer is able to see should not be the sole criterion by which quality is judged. One should be able to look at the inside, the reverse ... any of the parts which do not normally show ... and be just as pleased. The attitude of "it doesn't show when worn or used - therefore it doesn't matter - just doesn't cut it with the true artisan ... and it should not be acceptable to you either.

There is No "Not-Seen"!

This often carries over to "well, it's barely visible so it can be sloppy". An experienced, top-quality maker just will not tolerate sloppiness anywhere on the piece. Period.
In Conclusion ... Caveat Emptor

All of this does not mean you should be peering inside your handbags or inspecting your braces and firing off letters of complaint to their creators. Raw edges in leather goods are commonplace. Turned edges are the rarity and may not, in some cases, even be possible.

But when inspecting your potential acquisitions, make note of these shortcuts. Look inside and underneath, back as well as front, not just at the veneer.

You'll be a better buyer. Your accessories will be the nicer and more durable for it.

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If you would like to see a collection of turned-edge leather fittings, check out our Custom Braces pages.
As always, thank you for your time. I'm always happy to read your comments or answer questions. Just write to me here.