A quick search of the internet will throw up hundreds, if not thousands of handmade items. But what actually constitutes a handmade item?
The Cambridge Dictionary has its meaning as
“Made by someone using their hands rather than a machine”
With that in mind lets have a look at what companies and businesses class as handmade. Obviously, I am going to base this on leather goods as that is my craft. I will go through the basic process of crafting a leather belt and compare the differences.
The first job that needs doing when making a handmade leather item is cutting out the leather. Now I start with a large bridle butt. The whole back end of a cow. My first job is to cut a straight edge to the leather. I do this with a long metal plaster's feather edge, a round awl to mark it, and a head knife to cut the leather with. Once I have the first straight edge cut, I can then use a strap cutter or plough gauge to cut the required width of the strap. Another task that I carry out by hand.
Now someone else may use a die. A premade metal cutting tool that they lay on top of the leather. They would then use a hydraulic press to cut out the required shapes. Now assuming that they placed the leather by hand in to the machine this may still be classed as handmade. In fact, you can get a machine that you would just feed your leather hide into and it cuts it in to the required widths and number of straps you need. Fast and efficient if you need to make a lot of the same thing.
The next task that I now need to do is selected the required buckle and prepare the buckle return. This includes hot creasing the side of the leather, the nice line that you see down the edge of your belt. Edging, putting a rounded edge to the leather. Skiving, this is thinning the leather down to make a smooth return to the back of your buckle. Punching and preparing the buckle crew hole, the hole where the buckle pin pokes out through the leather. Making the leather keeper and staining and polishing the edges around the buckle. All of this takes me a long time. The same process can be done by a machine. You feed your strap in to the machine, and it edges and creases all in one go. So with the die cutting all of the holes that you need and another machine sorting the edges for you, is that handmade? Now take a look at your belt - go on! Have a look at the way that the buckle is attached. Is the leather rounded on both sides? That is a sign that it has been prepared by a machine. You see, where the two pieces of leather are stitched together on my belt, I don’t edge the leather at that point. This makes for a smoother finish and is a good sign of a hand-crafted leather belt.
My next job is stitching. I do this by hand. Yep! each one of those stitches are made by me pushing an awl and two needles through the leather to make a stitch. Very strong, totally traditional, and something that very few people can do properly. So pick your belt up again. Have a look at the way that the buckle is attached. Does it have a couple of rivets or Chicago screws? They are quick. Worse still, does it have a clip-on buckle!!!! Is it stitched? It is! Now does that stitching run along the length of the leather down the edges or does it go across the leather like perforated paper either side of the keeper? Hhmmm! perforated paper. I wonder where that belt will eventually fail! Now the reason that many belts are stitched across the leather is that it is easy to do on a machine. You see a sewing machine can’t stitch under that leather loop. By hand stitching I can. So if it is stitched by a machine is that still handmade? It certainly could be if the leather was being guided and controlled by hand. Take a look at a bag. That is a lot of stitching. A machine can do that in about 10 minutes or less. By hand you are looking at a couple of hours or more.
So, the buckle is attached now it is time for me to make the belt to the correct length. Do you remember when you brought that nice, store brought leather belt? Did it say fits a xx trouser size, or S, M, XXL? That is because they are mass produced to fit a variety of sizes. That is why sometimes you may have to by a belt that fits on the first or last hole because you aren’t quite the size that the belt was manufactured for. Now the reason that I need your length measurement around your waist with your trousers on is because that is the required size of belt that you need. I can then measure from the buckle and make that length the middle hole. Mark two additional marks either side and punch the holes through the leather. And yes, I use a manual hole punch and a big mallet to do this. In the machine process these holes would have been cut out by the press. Along with the point at the end of the belt. Another thing that I do by hand.
Finishing the belt is another time-consuming job. This needs to be done properly if I am going to achieve a great finish. The edges need rounding off and a hot crease is run around the edge as well. I run a hot crease around the sides as well. So have another look at your belt. Take a look at the pointy end this time. Do any lines down the edge actually go around the point, or do they just go straight over the edge? Does the point have a rounded edge to it? These are another sign of a machine-made belt.
Finally, I stain the edges all of the way round, wax and polish them for a really nice finish. I then block the loop, which makes it square, re-crease everything, and polish the buckle and it is done! A handmade, hand-crafted, work of art!
So, are all of my items made in this way?
Yes, you can guarantee it!
Hopefully this helps with understanding what is handmade and what is handmade but uses machinery to speed up the process. I will have a talk about leather and made in Great Britain can mean in the future.
Have a good day.
Posted by Simon Harrison. Posted In : News