The Search For The Perfect Leather Bag
Boutiques selling hip shoulder bag—from the rustic to the chic—seem all the rage these days. With all these offerings, how do you judge quality? Herewith, a visit with four, contrasting, American leather-crafting shops. Plus, a story behind the story of leather care.
A CRAFTSMANSHIP photo essay.
Story by TODD OPPENHEIMER
Photography by ROMAIN BLANQUART, SCOTT CHERNIS, SHAWN LINEHAN, and courtesy of L.P. STREIFEL
There is nothing quite like a fine leather bag—the softness of a fellow animal’s skin; the aroma, in some cases, of a well-controlled, natural tanning process; the solid stitching; and the deep shimmer of a sophisticated, subtle finish. Some leather goods deliver all of these attributes, while some appear to but don’t. Figuring out which is which can be difficult—especially when many leather goods are increasingly sold by elite brand names, with equally elite prices.
Our reverence for those brands began as an acknowledgement of their quality, and in many cases that status is still deserved. But as time has gone on, and the marketing campaigns of these brands have grown, consumers often end up paying for a company’s advertising as much as they do for the bag itself.
No one realizes this more than the world’s collection of skilled leather goods makers, many of whom toil in relative obscurity practicing time-honored techniques that the industrial age has nearly forgotten. In this photo essay, we introduce you to several of these operations in the U.S., in an effort to illustrate what constitutes true quality in a leather bag.
Our search begins with the basic duffle bag—in this case, a fairly large duffle from Shinola, the Detroit luxury goods manufacturer that is the subject of our lead story this issue. This bag (which is a substantial 22 inches long and 13 inches high) is designed by Shinola but made by one of its partners, Portchester USA, in Long Island, New York. The bag sells for $1,295, and even at that price it has a lot going for it. The leather (which comes from Horween, a respected tannery in Chicago) is well-tanned, the finish subtle and rich, and the hardware is solid.
The thickness and quality of the leather is also surprisingly consistent—not an easy feat with a bag of this size. (By its very nature, leather thickens and thins across a hide, simply because an animal’s hindquarters are built for a different life than, say, its soft under-belly.) Several leather crafters to whom we showed this particular bag thought it would stand up well to wear and tear–“a good bargain for a production bag,” as one put it. For an item that’s marketed as a semi-luxury product, however, the bag is missing a few finishing touches, which will become clear soon.
Here is another Shinola bag—in this case, the company’s tote bag (also made by Portchester, also with Horween leather). Measuring 14.5 inches by 18 inches, this bag sells for $895. One of its distinguishing features, according to Shinola, is the somewhat raw look of the leather on the inside. “It’s a lot harder to make an unlined bag than a lined one,” says Jen Guarino, the company’s Vice President of Leather, arguing that lining can hide a lot of flaws.
In this case, however, the unlined surface is colored and finished with a procedure that presses the leather fibers flat (a process that could also hide a lot of flaws). And the stitching is a little rough–note the loose corner on the inside pocket. If one is judging this bag against other totes on the market, many of which cost roughly half this price, these qualities could be seen as demerits. When comparing it with tote bags by big name luxury brands, however, the bag could be considered a bargain. As an example, Marley Hodgson, of Ghurka bag fame, sells its leather tote, with a similar set of pockets, for roughly $2,000.
Now we have a true contrast—in size, in price, and in workmanship. This is a small, ladies’ shoulder bag (7 inches tall, 8 inches long, 3 inches deep) that follows the design of a classic saddlebag. Which is no coincidence—the makers of this bag learned their trade from a saddle-maker. The bag is made and sold by Tanner Goods of Portland, Oregon, which now has stores in Los Angeles and San Francisco as well. Note the generous stitching and the finished edges. Its price: $250.
Unlike many production houses, the Tanner Goods leather-crafters don’t do the same thing day after day, which means that each one knows nearly every step needed to bring a bag like this to completion. Anika Caldwell is one of those workshop polymaths–part of a crew that apparently loves this work enough that they often take it home.
The workshop at Tanner is one part Millenial party (music, dogs, tattoos, lots of laughs), and one part quilting bee, or barn-raising. As such, it doesn’t seem quite right to call this a factory, despite its location in the rain-blasted remnants of an older, industrial Portland. It feels a bit like a summoning–to all the smart college graduates who would rather work with their hands than behind a desk.
Tanner was founded by two guys with backgrounds in design whose lucky break was meeting L.P . Streifel, an old-school saddle-maker. After working for years in Montana, Streifel moved to Vancouver, Washington, which is just across the river from Portland.
Now 78, Streifel still makes saddles, axe scabbards, chaps, rifle carrying cases, and holsters, typically adorning them with ornate hand-tooling as is the tradition in saddle-making. Streifel’s appreciation of solid leatherwork began in the hurly-burly world of bucking broncos and maddened bulls, when he had to entrust his life and limbs, as a rodeo rider, to the serviceability of a saddle and a good pair of boots.
The virtue of saddle-making–aside from its beauty and cowboy romance–is that it delivers a much stronger stitch than sewing machines can. Sewing machines use what’s called a lock stitch, which hooks thread together from each side of whatever is being sewn, in the middle of a stitch hole. This is usually sufficient, as long as the threads never tear; if they do, the entire line of stitching can unravel.
Saddle stitching, by contrast, is done by weaving together two separate lines of thread from both sides of the leather. This process can only be done by hand, but it creates a double loop of security if the stitching ever breaks. Because a saddle-maker uses only a needle and thread, he can–and usually does–use thicker thread, adding another element of strength (and a cool look).
Pulling off a clean, consistent hand-stitch is no simple feat. That’s why Streifel’s saddles start at around $5,000. The bright side of that price tag is that a good saddle (or a shoulder bag made like a saddle) should last a lifetime, and more–as long as you care for the leather properly. That’s a whole other story, however, best explained by Marv Obenauf, the hero of our sidebar article.
Tanner’s leatherworkers use a few tools employed by no one else in the country, because they’ve made them themselves. Edward Miranda (making a watchband here, L.P. Streifel style) once converted a tiny screwdriver into a new tool–Ed wanted something that could do a better job than his finger at installing a buckle in a newly sewn watchband.
“We’re smart,” says Ed, a Virginia woodworker who came to Oregon to make banjos and learned to crochet back in middle school because he liked to work with his hands. “We can use tools, we can make tools, and we can fix tools. All of us have that mindset.”
Many of Tanner Goods’ other leather products are relatively simple, like the offerings here. But considering what you’re getting, their prices are modest as well. Most of these wallets sell for less than $200, and they’re all made with high-grade, naturally tanned bridle leather.
This is referred to in the business as “vegetable tanned” leather, because the natural tannins in plant material–typically tree bark–do the curing. Most modern tanneries produce “chrome-tanned” leather, which uses trivalent chromium and other chemicals to stabilize their hides.
Now we take another step up on the leather goods ladder–to the semi-custom bags produced by Glaser Designs in San Francisco. Like Tanner Goods, Glaser Designs uses only vegetable tanned leather, sourced from South America and Hermann Oak, a tannery in St. Louis, Missouri, that’s been a family operation since 1881. While this particular bag is one of the shop’s more expensive items (more than $2,000, simply because of its labor-intensive finish), the average bag or briefcase at Glaser sells for $1,100 to $1,200.
The product line here was created by Myron and Kari Glaser, who have been making various kinds of carrying cases, primarily for “the business traveler,” for 40 years. In the process they have carved out an unusual niche–what they call “custom configured” bags.
Here’s how it works. Let’s say you’re interested in a particular bag on their website; before they will take your order, Myron or Kari will get you on a skype call, where they grill you about the kind of work you do, and how you plan to use your new bag. “How much stuff do you typically carry?” Myron asks. “Do you go on long trips or short ones? Do you want it to carry your laptop? Are you planning an upgrade?”
The reason for all the questions is that the Glasers can make your bag in any number of sizes; they’ve also developed an extensive set of modular options, any combination of which can be included in your particular carrying case.
They’ve also taken the business of leather finishing to a high art, as illustrated by the details in this bag. Note the finely polished edges, the careful stitching, the ample reinforcements, and–Myron’s proudest achievement–the textured finish.
The reason for this finish is a delightful little parable–a craftsman’s way of taking lemons and making lemonade, and a very fine lemonade indeed. Here’s the back story.
Anyone who works with leather these days will tell you that leather quality has steadily declined. Some say the hides are thinner or flimsier because cattle are grown faster than they used to be. This, the argument goes, keeps their hides from maturing slowly and substantially, the way nature intended. While some disagree on this point, virtually every leather expert I spoke to said that today’s leather has more surface imperfections–tic bites, or scars and scratches from barbed wire and the many other sharp and hard objects that most cattle live around these days.
The way to mask these imperfections is to texture the leather, which is commonly done through some kind of industrial process. That’s what gave this wallet its pebbled surface. This is a look that consumers have increasingly become accustomed to; in fact, many discerning shoppers have grown to love it. But it is far from natural.
Enter Myron Glaser, who figured out a way to texture his leather by hand, which gives it a much more natural look–in this case, almost like elephant skin.
He starts the process by having one of the workers in his shop (there are only five, besides Myron, Kari, and their son, Ely), prepare the leather with a series of thin surfactants. Don’t even think of asking him what’s in these liquids. When I did, all he said, over and over, was this: “We use a combination of oils and waxes that are precursors to cosmetic products.” Once the leather has absorbed the treatments, and dried, the fun begins.
At this point, Myron starts “graining” the leather. He rolls it this way and that, until it wrinkles in a manner that’s sufficiently varied but uniform to please his eye. He also dyes the piece, with “our own formulas of water-based inks.” (Most leather finishing is done with chemical dyes.)
Both the wrinkling and dying are part of a complicated “multi-step process,” each part critical to the finish that Myron is aiming for. “No one else does this that I know of,” he says, with a wry smile. These discoveries did not come easily. “A couple of years ago, we couldn’t do this. We only figured it out recently.”
The next stage is cutting, gluing and sewing–then hammering the panels to make sure that each stitch is smooth and tight.
The result is a generously reinforced bag–even inside seams and lining that the owner will never see. “You’ll never see a bag on the open market made like this,” Myron says. With another wry smile.
And voilà: a sophisticated briefcase ready for customizing any number of ways. The Glasers’ bags can be made with four different shades of leather, and 15 different colors of lining. Just recently, Myron creating a new process for making linen waterproof–with a matte finish that feels like oilcloth, but isn’t. “What do you think of that?” he asks. “Nobody else is doing this.”
Finally, we arrive at the top rung of this ladder: the 100% custom bags produced at San Francisco’s April in Paris by Beatrice Amblard. The simple duffle you see here–which is roughly the same size as the Shinola bag at the beginning of this story–sells for $4,250.
How can this be? One reason is that the bag is full of hidden pockets of handwork. For example, the piping–which gives the bag both strength and cleaner lines–is all sewn by hand. So are a few other spots here and there, such as the handle attachments.
Beatrice, who is French, does this stitching almost exactly the same way that Tanner Goods’ saddle-maker, L.P. Streifel, does–with a painstaking saddle stitch. Hers, of course, are a little more refined than what you find on a saddle.
Beatrice learned this technique when she worked at Hermès in Paris in the 1980s, at time when a significant part of each Hermès bag was hand-stitched. Hermès still does some hand-stitching on each bag in critical areas, just the way Beatrice does. But its bags are at least twice as expensive as hers.
The end result, if you can afford it, can be worth it–as this alligator-skin purse makes clear. (To get an even closer look at Beatrice’s technique for hand-stitching, look to your right for our slideshow, “The Art of a hand-stitched purse.”)
One of the lures of making leather goods is you get to work with some really cool tools. Some of those in Beatrice’s shop are many decades old, and she protects them like her children. One tool not pictured here is what’s called “a creasing iron,” a long metal stick that can hot-press glued edges.
The trick to using one of these irons is to get it hot enough to spread the glue, but not so hot that it burns the leather. Today’s creasing irons have electrical settings to accomplish this feat. Not so with the irons Beatrice learned on. “We used to heat them over a gas flame, and then hold them against our cheek. If your cheek burned, you knew it was too hot.”
In 2010, Beatrice started teaching classes, and she’s been drawing eager students ever since. Class fees aren’t cheap–$85 for an evening workshop, $17,000 for a full-year course, involving one eight-hour day each week. Still, the students come, lured by the magic of leather, and the chance to study with an Hermès master.
What’s so compelling about this work? Maybe its the combination of sensuality and tactile achievement. “Every piece I ever made is burned into my memory,” Beatrice says. “Clients come in with pieces I made 15 years ago, and I still remember what it took to make that. It’s like seeing an old friend again.”