Sam Jones spends a day creating her own beautifully handmade leather ipad case, under the expert tuition of Pembrokeshire business owner Gaynor Davies Howell
ON a crisp, clear and somewhat fresh day I made the early morning drive through the Preseli Hills to a small chapel just outside Narberth. I entered with some trepidation, but I was met not only with the smiles of the bright and enthusiastic business owner, Gaynor, but also by the glorious smell of leather, along with the warmth of a roaring wood burning fire, which all provided the prefect welcome I needed.
Gaynor is a leatherwork training provider who has been running courses since 2007, offering one, two, three and five day professional leatherworking courses in the picturesque old chapel. I was here for a one day course and very much looking forward to the day ahead.
With her assistants Enya and Sian, Gaynor went through some Health and Safety tips and then proceeded to discuss what was planned for the day.
At my designated workstation, neatly laid out for me, was an apron and an array of tools needed for the task ahead, but my first – and perhaps trickiest, task – choosing the colour of the leather I would be working with.
The chapel, which retains many of its original features, provided plenty of open space to move around, with the walls holding shelves displaying an array of beautifully handcrafted bags, totes, satchels and masks (Gaynor also runs a course on making masks). It is on surveying these lovely finished items that I wonder just what the end result of my day would be.
We moved to a bench, where large rolls of leather were carefully removed from their sacking covers, where we made our colour selection for the day. We were working with the shoulder hide, tanned using vegetable dyes. Only 15% of leather is tanned this way these days, with the rest being tanned using chrome or aluminium salts. Gaynor showed us a sample of the modern dyed leather and you can clearly feel and smell the difference between the two styles. We are given five colours to choose from, Plum, Black, Dark Green, Red and Tan; I opted for the Tan and couldn’t wait to get started.
Gaynor had pre-prepared stencils of every imaginable design and, having chosen my design I took it and my leather and headed off to my workbench.
Preparation proved to be the key when working with such beautiful material and, before putting knife to leather, we used a tool called a scratch awl – essentially our pencil – to carefully trace the pattern on to the leather; then, using a knife and metal ruler, and attempting to calm my nerves, I carefully cut the leather into the desired shapes.
Under the watchfully eye of Gaynor and with plenty of guidance and support from Enya and Sian, our small working group were given confidence in what we were doing. I was, perhaps, a little anxious about cutting into such beautiful leather, but Gaynor’s sunny disposition and banter gave me the
encouragement I needed.
Once cut the edges were dyed or burnished, depending on the colour of the leather. This left the exposed edges with a gloriously professional shine. We then carefully measured and marked our stitch line with dividers and a prickling iron, for the daunting task of hand stitching later. Once marked, glue was applied and the edges were placed together and secured with bulldog clips.
We took a well deserved break at this point and gathered around the crackling wood burner for our lunch and our small group of ladies commenced to get to know each other better.
On this course was a mother and daughter who live in Pembrokeshire, an analyst who had travelled from London and had enjoyed a bag making class with Gaynor in the past, and a fashion designer/small holder, who bred her own animals in order to create her own fabrics, spun locally in Ceredigion, to create her designs. A very interesting group of ladies who had plenty of stories to share.
After a lively hour of laughter and chat, we headed back to our benches and began the task of stitching. We were shown how to thread two needles, coating the cotton in beeswax for smoothness and added strength, and to my relief we got to practice before having a go on our own leather. The practice proved valuable, as it’s not as easy as it looks!
Perched high on stool with the leather clamped between my knees in a stitching clamp, the first task is to make individual stitching holes with a very sharp awl, following the marks we had made earlier with the dividers and prickling iron. We were shown how to do, this carefully placing our fingers so as to avoid any unwanted piercings! With bright illumination from the overhead light and being placed directly in front of the window, I felt slightly overwhelmed for the first time that day. Could I do this? I knew I should have brought my glasses! My stitching is going to be awful!
Enya spotted the insecurity and immediately came along and gave me the gentle encouragement I needed, and once I got going I soon settled into a rhythm and found it to be incredibly therapeutic. My mind cleared and I relaxed into the methodical piercing and stitching which concentrated my mind for the next two hours. We had a break during the course of the afternoon, where Gaynor appeared with some delicious cakes to go with a steaming mug of tea, before we completed the stitching. We all worked at our own pace and there was no pressure to keep up, with Gaynor splitting her team effectively to cater for all.
Once the stitching was complete all that was left to do was add the buttons we had cut earlier, along with the tie to hold the case shut, sand the edges and finish the by burnishing to a brilliant shine. AND WE WERE COMPLETED
Bursting with pride and with a huge sense of achievement, I couldn’t – can’t – quite believe that I have actually made myself a leather, HAND-STITCHED ipad case – and, rather smugly, I couldn’t wait to show it off!
After arriving in the morning feeling very much out of my comfort zone – I haven’t stitched anything other than the knees in my son’s school trousers for years, I left Gaynor and my fellow crafters with a huge sense of achievement, and feeling very proud of myself.
Gaynor and her team offer a great experience, sharing traditional leatherwork skills used for hundreds of years. I cannot recommend this course enough and would love to return to learn more – another course is on my Christmas list, hoping to add to my collection or leatherwork. I aim to leave with a bag to match my lovely ipad case next time!
Gaynor offers course catering for all levels and abilities, but, best bit of all, you come away having not only learned a new skill to build upon, but with a beautiful, handcrafted leather product.
www.gdhleathercourses.co.uk 01437 563110