A leatherworker discusses her craft.
CLAIRE PAINTER, SADDLE MAKER
"The interesting thing is, it changes."
Leather is still a living thing.
It’s like your skin. Take a dry saddle and try oiling it. I wish with my wrinkles I could throw a cream on for twenty-four hours and boom, they’re gone. But leather doesn’t work like that. It’s time, a little at a time. You’ve got to care for something if you expect it to last.
I was the youngest and my sister always wanted to do the horse thing. She’d find little ponies in London and make little sister get on. I was a real chicken, not very good and these unbroken ponies used to bite me. I’ve always been around horses, but my skill wasn’t riding them. So doing the saddlery and the leather was a way to have a career with them. So, I came over here with a thousand dollars, two pairs of jeans, a couple of t-shirts, and a back pack.
Whether you’re doing a belt, a bridle, a halter, the basic steps are the same.
You pick your piece of leather that’s suitable. The right weight. You cut it to the width you need it, the length you need it. And then you finish the ends, whether they’re going to be round ends or square ends. You edge the leather with a bevel, polish the edges and often you’ll take the hot crease and you’ll burnish the line. You’d punch a hole for the buckle to go through, and then stitch it up.
“Leather is not a forgiving material. Once you stitch it, if you stitch it wrong, the holes are still there. They never go away. You scratch it, it’s not going to come off. The interesting thing is, it changes. it’s the most frustrating thing when you do it wrong, but it’ll yield. Sometimes there are things you’re asking it to do and you don’t know if it can and wow, it did it. You’re not quite sure if you’re going to pull it off and then you do. That’s one of the fun things with leather. You pick the right bit, you’ve got a chance. With other materials, you haven’t got that adventure.
Split the hide down the back bone.
The strongest part is toward the butt. If you imagine your butt and your back, it’s the tightest, strongest leather. As you go around the side to your stomach, the top of your arms, the top of your legs, all that’s a little bit softer, isn’t it? It’s the same with the hides. It’s more stretchy. So the back and the butt is usually where you’ll find the best leather. You’d use it for things where you need more strength and less give. But it doesn’t mean the belly doesn’t have other uses, where you’d like it to stretch and you’d like it to mold and form.
Like a True Lucky Piece. Say you wanted leather molding right over it. I could take the stretchy leather, wet it, and it would mold much easier. Or something I’m splitting down and doubling. So you don’t need the core strength. You’ve got the strength from the two bits of leather.
You hear the term top grain leather. If you imagine leather as your skin, the outside is the top. The idea of leather is that the skin, even when it’s tanned, has got strength and durability. And that’s why the top grain is the strongest. But when the leather comes off, it’s thick. So the top grain will be used, but then you’ve got various splits underneath, which can be used as suede or you can spray a finish on it and make it look like leather. You might get three cuts out of a hide. But there’s only one that’s got the quality you’re imagining.
I’ve been in Lexington, Kentucky for twenty-four years now.
It’s very English in parts. The winding backroads through creeks. So it didn’t feel as strange as I thought it would.
I used to go work at the shows, so I’d see horses all day. I’ll still do a little trail ride on a very old horse now, just for fun. There’s always a horse around. Always available. I’m ten minutes from Keeneland. So when the races are on, one of the most fun things to do is go early morning and get breakfast and watch all the horses go by working out. The sun’s coming up. There’s never an excuse not to see a horse going by.