BBC’s The Repair Shop, or: Craftsmanship & Self-Doubt

We don’t watch a great deal of television here at Earthworks. We have a TV near the workbench and once in a while we’ll have a film on in the background. We often listen to audiobooks while we’re working but, more often than not, you’ll find me and Samantha listening to music while we’re making your leather journals.

But, a few days ago, one of us switched on the TV for some reason. It was around 4:45 in the afternoon and the TV was set to BBC1. We were greeted by a craftsperson at a workbench renovating a leather footstool. We were entranced. We had discovered ‘The Repair Shop’! Apparently, it’s on its fourth series (we’re always late to the party!)

the repair shop - bbc

If you haven’t watched The Repair Shop before (and I highly recommend that you do) it’s a celebration of craftsmanship hosted by talented furniture restorer Jay Blades and the concept is this… a group of skilled craftspeople from varying professions have set up shop in a beautiful barn at The Weald & Download Open Air Museum; people visit and bring their treasured possessions, items which have been passed down through the generations, items with huge sentimental value, items which have aged and become worn, damaged and broken. These items are left with the experts who go on to repair, renovate and restore them to their former glory before returning them to their owners.

It’s a beautiful programme, a bit like Bagpuss for grown-ups (not that Bagpuss isn’t for grown-ups too, of course!)

bagpuss mending song - earthworks journals

The Repair Shop has a simple concept perhaps, but the key to it is the emotional relevance people imbue these items with. They have been handed down through the family and the original owners have usually passed away; these items now belong to the children or grandchildren of the original owner and, in some small way, the items contain a little bit of the spirit of the deceased loved one. It’s lovely to see the emotional outpourings when the items are returned, how a simple keepsake can bring that person back, if only for a moment.

While watching the programme in awe Samantha turned to me and said, “These people are so skilled!” I replied, “I know, it’s lovely to see such incredible craftspeople”; we then went on to discuss how amazing it must be to be so skilled at your chosen craft. A few seconds went by and we looked down at our workbench, I was hand tooling an elaborate Celtic design into the cover of an as yet undyed leather journal and Samantha was delicately hand applying a leather dye to another which had just been tooled. We looked at each other and laughed, a strangely nervous laugh.

A4 CELTIC TRISKELE SPIRAL BINDER - EARTHWORKS JOURNALS A4B018

I want to talk about Imposter Syndrome.

Imposter Syndrome is apparently an incredibly common phenomenon in which an individual feels inadequate at their chosen profession and lives in constant fear of being exposed as a fraud. I think the highly acclaimed author Neil Gaiman writes about it best with this famous quote:

The first problem of any kind of even limited success is the unshakable conviction that you are getting away with something, and that at any moment now they will discover you. It’s Imposter Syndrome, something my wife Amanda christened The Fraud Police.

In my case, I was convinced that there would be a knock on the door, and a man with a clipboard (I don’t know why he carried a clipboard, in my head, but he did) would be there, to tell me it was all over, and they had caught up with me, and now I would have to go and get a real job, one that didn’t consist of making things up and writing them down, and reading books I wanted to read.

And also in this remarkable anecdote from Neil Gaiman’s blog:

Neil Gaiman on Imposter Syndrome

Both Samantha and I feel like this every day. If we think about it logically we know that we have sent thousands of hand made leather journals and binders all over the world in our 19 years of making them and out of those we have only had four customers who were unhappy with the quality of their item when it arrived (yes… 4. We remember each one of them like a knife to the heart!). But that still doesn’t stop us fretting about it; it still doesn’t stop us worrying about that metaphorical knock at the door. Each time we send the packaged up journals out in the post we worry about angry emails from people saying “How dare you call yourselves craftspeople!”

But then, perhaps it shouldn’t be called Imposter Syndrome, I suspect the majority of people feel that overwhelming sense of self-doubt. Perhaps even those wonderful and highly skilled craftspeople at The Repair Shop also feel it too. Perhaps it isn’t such a bad thing. Perhaps it drives us on closer and closer to perfection? From our own perspective, that fear of being ‘found out’ makes us try harder, not only in the actual crafting of the item but everything else connected with it, from the accounting to the customer service.

It’s a strange thing that even the knowledge that the vast majority of our customers are happy doesn’t allay the fear of not being good enough. We get nothing but glowing reviews on our Etsy shop, we’ve even had Thank You cards sent through the post, and we receive lots of emails every week from people saying how happy they are with our work… and we cannot tell you how much these messages mean to us, they are our lifeline. And, just like in The Repair Shop, we have even had customers moved to tears when they’ve opened their parcel. I think this has something to do with the personal nature of what we make, leather journals are naturally an intimate item; we begin the process by making the journal and the recipient completes the item by filling it with their thoughts. Just like the items people take to The Repair Shop, the journal is truly imbued with the person who owned it, their hands will have created a unique patina on the leather outside and their intimate thoughts will have filled the pages inside. It’s no wonder people become so emotionally attached to them.

A customer with her Earthworks Wraparound Journal

A customer’s own photo of her with her Earthworks Wraparound Journal

We’ve been moved to tears ourselves on occasion too. We’ve had more than one customer who have been told they have a terminal illness and need a journal to write down their story to pass on to their children. Another customer asked us to tool their family crest onto a binder so they could fill the binder with memories and present it to their grandfather who was spending his last days in a hospice; they even sent us a photo afterwards, which we treasure, of them presenting the binder to him. And then there are the books for public buildings, memorial books for churches and cathedrals, items that will become a part of the building’s history. It’s requests like these that make our hearts beat a little faster and make us think… are we really good enough to be making things for such important purposes? But, despite that self-doubt nagging in the background, we do our very best.

Our unofficial company motto should be: “We worry so our customers don’t have to!”

Who knows, if The Repair Shop is still being shown in decades to come (and I hope it is, it deserves to be a national treasure on a par with Antiques Roadshow), perhaps someone will bring in their grandparent’s Earthworks journal for restoration! And you can think of me, I’ll be the one cringing in my grave and fretting that those skilled craftspeople will secretly be mocking the workmanship!!

the repair shop 2 - bbc

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Hospitals, Holidays and Human Kindness, or: Self-employment and the scarcity of sick days.

Christmas is always a busy time for us here at Earthworks, we work all hours in the run up to the holiday season so that we can fit all the orders in. It takes a lot of organisation, not only with the strictly coordinated work list but with our own Christmas shopping for our family too. We wrote a bit about the pre-Christmas stresses on a previous blog post here:

The Quiet Before the Storm

This year though, we had it all planned. As usual the orders came in thick and fast and, as usual, each customer was booked onto the work list and given a precise dispatch date for their order. We’re old hands at this now so it was all going smoothly. So smoothly, in fact, that we decided to spare some time and go hand-made with the presents for our families too, a selection of home-made liqueurs and sweets; with military precision the times were allotted for these too. All sorted, all organised, nothing could go wrong.

Or so we thought!

earthworks journals - preparing the orders for shipping

November 30th arrived and Samantha started to feel a little under the weather, nothing much, a bit more tired than usual and a bit of an upset tummy. The next day came and the upset tummy turned into a full blown stomach bug. As the days passed Samantha got worse and worse and we presumed it was a bout of gastroenteritis. Of course, this could have put a spanner in the works of our carefully designed work list but Samantha is very tough, very stubborn and very ‘self-employed’ and refuses to let a silly thing like a violent virus get in the way; so, as much as she could, she worked through it.

She did, of course, visit the GP who confirmed that it was gastroenteritis and that it would run its course soon. Ten days later and Samantha was even worse, so ill that she couldn’t get up off the sofa, this was just not like her so I phoned the GP again and got an appointment for that afternoon.

By 5pm, we were sitting amongst the walking wounded in the A&E department of our hospital. It turned out that the ‘bit of a stomach bug’ Samantha had been working through was a burst appendix! In a flurry of activity by the incredibly amazing hospital staff, she was soon hooked up to a drip (massively dehydrated), pumped full of painkillers and antibiotics, scanned, questioned and examined. Samantha wasn’t going to be coming back home with me!

Since Samantha and I moved in together in 1993, we’ve only spent one night apart… and that was when I had to stay in the hospital overnight (due to an over-zealous jig… but that’s another story!), so it was a new experience for me. I got home at about 3 in the morning, the house was dark and cold, Tanner and Hob (our Border Terriers) had no idea what was going on. I looked at the mountain of work that was to be done, thought about my Sam in hospital and felt a bit lost and alone. I fell asleep cuddling Tanner and Hob. However bad things get, the closeness of a dog will always make things more bearable.

tanner and hob - border terriers - earthworks journals

Sam remained in hospital for the next five days. The surgeon made an incision just to the side of the base of her spine and inserted a pipe into her abdomen to drain the pus which had collected there into a bag which hung by her bed. There was so much of the foul smelling stuff! We still do not know just how long this had been going on for but the scans showed that a series of abscesses had formed around the appendix, each time one started to leak, Sam’s body walled it off by growing another abscess next to it. The growth ended up so large that it was pressing on one of her kidneys and semi-blocking her rectum. The surgeon said that a day or two longer and we would have lost the kidney altogether. Any longer than that and Samantha could have died.

As you can imagine, this was quite a stressful time. Of course, I visited Samantha in hospital twice a day. Then there was the question of the work. Although I worked every hour I was not with Samantha I knew that, with one half of the Earthworks workforce missing, there was no way I was going to get all of the orders completed to get them out in time for Christmas.

But I had a bloody good go at it!

It was good to have the work to sink into. Being at my workbench, handling the tools and materials which I’ve become so familiar with over the years, has a habit of stilling my mind; there can be something quite meditative about it. Although the work didn’t completely block out my worries, it certainly helped; without being that busy I know that I would have been a bit of a wreck.

jason in the workshop - earthworks journals

Then, of course, came the time when I knew which orders would not be completed before Christmas and I would have to contact those customers. There was something very upsetting about this. In all our years of business, we have never sent out a single item later than the day promised. Something we’ve always been very proud of. However, here it was… and just before Christmas too, when most of them were intended as gifts for loved ones.

I sent out the emails of apology, explaining the situation and offering every customer the opportunity of a full refund. I expected a few disappointed or angry replies and I was certain that most would want the refund. Without wishing to sound cavalier about the situation, the money was another real consideration for us, we do not earn a great deal from what we do and we rely on the boost in Christmas sales to help us through the year but if we’ve let people down then it’s only fair that we accept that responsibility. With the emails sent I nervously waited for the replies.

Not a single person wanted to cancel their order! Not a single person!! Not only that, every customer was so kind. Reply after reply of encouragement and hope came in, telling me not to worry, that they can wait for their order, that our loved ones are more important than possessions, telling me to make sure that I looked after myself as well as Samantha. I’d been doing my best to hold my emotions in until this point but I’m not afraid to admit that I shed a tear or two at those emails, the sheer kindness of people overwhelmed me (…ok, I actually sobbed like a baby right there at the computer, but don’t tell anyone).

Anyway, Samantha was well enough to come home again five days after being admitted. Still weak and still with the drain and pus-bag attached, which became her constant Christmas companion and got removed the day after Boxing Day. Every order was completed and dispatched in time for the second promised date. Oh, and our families hand-made liqueurs and sweets? We finished those over the Christmas week and they became New Year presents instead.

Samantha’s still not quite up to full strength but she is doing very well and has a follow-up consultation at the hospital next week. She never ceases to amaze and surprise me. Through all of this she as remained bright and happy, even the nurses on her ward said how it was easy to forget just how ill she was as she gave the appearance of being so well.

It perhaps seems a bit strange writing about this personal incident on our business blog, although the business and the personal tend to blur in our situation. I suppose it’s just to say thank you. Thank you to the amazing NHS staff for saving Sam’s life. Thank you to our wonderful customers for being so kind and supportive (you’ll never know how much your kindness helped us through this). And most of all, thank you to Samantha for being incredibly strong and courageous… and, y’know, for not dying.

Different Ways of Seeing: or, Taking The Road Less Travelled By.

 

SUN DOGS - EVENING WALK NORTHAMPTONSHIRE - EARTHWORKS JOURNALS

It’s been a strange year.

Our regular customers will know that we launched our new and improved website one year ago to combat the lacklustre look and poor performance of the old one. Even though the things we make, and us as people, are quite analogue, we still need to keep up with new technology; striking that peculiar balance between the hand-made nature of the journals and the mind-bending technology needed to get people to see those journals.

Admittedly, we’ve never been totally comfortable in this new technological age but we’ve learnt that we need to keep our eyes and minds open to it because, if we do not embrace change early, then those changes will probably overwhelm us later on.

We’re pleased to report that here and now, one year later, all the hard work seems to have paid off. We’ve had some lovely messages from our old customers to let us know how good the new website looks and how much easier it is to use than the old one and we’ve been getting plenty of new friends of Earthworks Journals too.

Of course, this increase in customers has meant that we have been very busy in the workshop. The eagle-eyed amongst you will have noticed that our waiting list has been a bit longer, that we haven’t been keeping up with social media and that we haven’t sent a newsletter out for a while.

But, we’d just like to let you know that, even though we haven’t been on social media and that we haven’t sent out a newsletter for a while, it doesn’t mean that we don’t appreciate you! We do! Very much! It’s just that we haven’t had much time to do anything else.

Not that we tend to do much else, anyway. We lead a strange and insular life in our workshop home; just the two of us with our two Border Terriers, Tanner and Hob. We’re not ones for socialising; we don’t go to pubs or out for meals; we rarely go to the theatre or cinema; we don’t go shopping (bar the occasional rummage around a bric-a-brac shop or second-hand bookshop); we inhabit our own world.

Our one diversion is walking.

Often we will spend weekends going on, what we call, our big walks. These are usually around 10 miles long, planned out by plotting three random points on an OS map and finding a route between them. This means that we usually miss out on the well-worn picturesque locations but we do find some peculiar and interesting places along the way:

But even these ‘big walks’ have been put on the back burner this year due to the combination of a heavy workload and the abnormally hot summer (neither us nor the dogs do well in the heat). Even the daily dog walk was changed in the exceptional summer this year; rather than going out mid-afternoon, we started to take the dogs out to our local woods late in the evening, just as it was getting dark.

It’s remarkable what a difference a simple change can make if we embrace it rather than fight against it. It’s easy to bemoan a change to a well-worn routine without appreciating how it can make us look at life a little differently.

EVENING LIGHT - HARLESTONE FIRS - EARTHWORKS JOURNALS

Obviously, we’ve been out in the woods at night before, but to break a well-established routine and do it every night lets you experience the woods in a different light. Quite literally! Everything is different; the golden glow of the last of the light drifts in sideways and makes the trees look like oil paintings; the musty smells of the forest floor are intensified at night and become strangely comforting; and the sounds! The woods come alive as the darkness arrives. We’ve seen foxes, deer, badgers and bats; all things that shy away from the daytime crowds.

WALKING IN THE WOODS - HARLESTONE FIRS - EARTHWORKS JOURNALS

I think it’s important that we strive to do this once in a while, just to try and see things differently. When we first had the idea to start Earthworks Journals it seemed like a bit of a pipe dream. Could we really make a living making leather journals? On the rare occasion we meet someone and tell them what we do, they often say “What, and you make a living doing that?”. We know it seems unlikely, yet we do. I mean, let’s face it, we’re never going to be rich doing it, but that’s not why we do it. We do it so that we can comfortably inhabit our own world. That was always the plan. To earn enough to pay our own way and not take anything in benefits; to not allow our business to lose its way in the pursuit of money; to be free to live our own life, however small and strange that life may be!

It’s not completely stress free, obviously. We still have to worry about how the next bill is going to be paid, just like everyone else but…

… walking around our woods always makes things right.

I’ve been going there my entire life; I went there as child with my dad; I went there in my teenage years with friends; and I still go there now with Samantha and the dogs. Whenever we get stressed, anxious or unhappy a walk in the woods will, more often than not, help to quell those worries. Some days Samantha and I will walk around excitedly discussing new ideas for Earthworks, other days we will walk around in near silence with our own thoughts. It was in the woods where we discussed and planned this blog post.

I invariably turn to Henry Thoreau quotes on these blog posts to put my transcendentalist ramblings into a far more eloquent form. And this one’s no different:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms…”
~ Henry David Thoreau

Or that other great philosopher:

“What we should be doing is working at the job of life itself!”
~ Tom Good, The Good Life

(All photos on this post by Samantha Webster.)

Necessity is the Mother of Invention: or, how a lack of money and a ruthless self-reliance evolved into a craft business.

handmade leather belts - earthworks journals

“When without resources, depend on resourcefulness.”
~ Sun Tzu

Samantha and I have always enjoyed making things. Even before we met, when we were children, our favoured toys were the sort of toys which involved creating; model kits; lego; crayons; paints; even a sheet of paper could become anything you wanted it to be with a child’s imagination. Of course, being brought up in the 1970s, we may well have been products of our time; the whole self-sufficiency kick of the ‘70s meant that we were fed a steady diet of television programmes to get us making and doing. We’re both from working class backgrounds which meant that there wasn’t much money to go round for materials and tools and this made us get creative with our creativity.

Samantha took this passion for making things further and went on to a degree in Fine Art Sculpture at University. Being rather impoverished, Samantha used materials which she could find cheaply or, preferably, for free. This led to an invaluable lesson about materials helping to dictate form. Each material has its own inherent property and it’s this marriage between the artist’s intention and the property of the material being used which dictates the final form. This led to an appreciation of the unique beauty of materials in their natural state and how they can be utilised while still retaining that natural beauty; this is something which is still hugely important to us with Earthworks Journals, the importance of enhancing the natural quality of leather rather than disguising it.

I had a bit more of a chequered education/career path and, at the age of 23, I fell into working for The Northamptonshire Wildlife Trust on a year long contract as a Wildlife Ranger. Most of my work here was in forestry and my days were usually filled with coppicing, pollarding and hedge-laying. These practices all create a lot of spare wood and I was given the scope to develop my traditional craft skills while working for Thegreen woodwork - mike abbott Wildlife Trust. It was here another Ranger introduced me to a book which was to become a classic of its type, Green Woodwork by Mike Abbott. Using the directions in Abbott’s book, we built a pole lathe and all of that free green wood we were getting from managing the woodlands was soon being turned into all manner of objects. We took the pole lathe to Country Shows to give demonstrations and sold the items we were making to raise funds to give back to The Wildlife Trust. There was something nicely cyclical about that.

The Self-Reliance of The Craftsperson

Over the years, Samantha and I have developed a ruthless sense of self-reliance. We’ve rarely had periods when we’ve had money going spare but we have built up a good selection of tools and a huge variety of materials, bits & bobs, doodahs, thingummyjigs and whatchamacallits that we can make things from. I’m not saying that we are self-sufficient, far from it, but before buying anything our first recourse is to ask ourselves “Can we make it?”. And the same goes for jobs around the house, we would rather tackle jobs ourselves rather than get someone else to do it for us. Here’s Samantha on a rickety scaffold tower (which we hired very cheaply) repairing the chimney at the back of the house:

sam repairing the chimney - earthworks journals

Of course, given what we do for a living, we do have a large amount of leather offcuts and leather tools around the place and, naturally, we have made ourselves various items out of leather. I thought I’d share a few of these here.

1: The Tandrover:

Many years ago we bought a battered old Pashley tandem. This old beast had travelled across Europe and around India with its previous owner and was looking a bit worse for wear; so we gave it a bit of a spruce up and made a pair of new saddles from natural vegetable tanned leather, added a leaf motif and coated them with neatsfoot oil. These are over a decade old now and well travelled but still look as good as new. They’re buffed to a high shine with the effort of trying to get the weight of the steel-framed tandem up even the most modest of Northamptonshire hills!

vintage pashley tandem - handmade leather saddles - earthworks journals

2: Bags:

Who doesn’t love a decent leather bag? The only problem is that to buy one of decent quality is usually way out of the price range of a humble craftsperson. All of these are hand-stitched and most of the hardware has been salvaged from other items (those buckles on the lighter coloured satchel were from a particularly nice pair of boots I used to own (we never throw decent hardware away!))

handmade vegetable tanned leather satchel - handmade leather clutch bag - earthworks journals

handmade leather saddlebag satchel - oiled natural vegetable tanned leather - earthworks journals

handmade leather bag - waxed leather - earthworks journals

3: Sheaths:

As I said earlier, I used to work as a Ranger for The Wildlife Trust and it was there I developed a love for hand-tools. Me and Samantha have also done a bit of wild camping and we’ve both even taught people outdoor woodcraft/survival skills on occasion. Obviously, when I get a new bladed tool I always make a sheath for it.

The axe is my favourite Gransfors Bruks.

gransfors bruks hatchet - handmade leather sheath - earthworks journals

The strange, long implement is a Nata Jigata; a single bevelled Japanese cleaver – a beautiful thing, literally razor sharp and the best tool I’ve found for snedding.

nata jigata - japanese cleaver - handmade leather sheath earthworks journals

I made the knife myself. The blade came from a Swedish bladesmith and I made the handle using thin layers of birch bark stacked together and sandwiched between the two Holly end caps. The tang runs through the whole handle and rivets at the end. I made the sheath from a natural vegetable tanned leather which I wet-formed around a blade catcher, also made of Holly wood. The leather hanger is ‘mystery’ braided.

handmade knife and sheath - birch bark handle - swedish hand-forged blade - vegetable tanned leather sheath - earthworks journals

4: Shoes:

We haven’t actually made an entire pair of shoes yet but we have repaired and/or customised several existing pairs. Samantha found this pair of shoes in a charity shop, she loved those remarkable wooden soles but the uppers were badly worn and damaged. So, we created a simple mule type upper and matching insole from some oiled vegetable tanned leather with a subtle bit of edge decoration.

reclaimed and customised wedge shoes - handmade leather uppers - carved wooden soles - earthworks journals

5: Belts:

Belts are a particular bugbear of mine. It’s so difficult to find a reasonably priced, good quality leather belt on the high street! Even when they are advertised as leather they are, more often than not, made of leather composite (this is leather dust in a polyurethane carrier rather than an actual strip of leather, leather composite is to leather what mdf is to wood). And it’s not just the cheap brands that are made from leather composite, many of the high-end fashion brands do this too… and not just with belts! Many designer handbags are made from terrible quality ‘leather’. People are buying outrageously priced items thinking that a fancy logo is a promise of quality when it really isn’t. It’s this sort of dishonesty and lack of respect for the customer that makes my blood boil!

So we always make our own belts, like everything else we make, from proper leather and with proper hardware. Things that will hopefully last a lifetime, preferably several lifetimes:

handmade leather belts - vegetable tanned leather - earthworks journals

6: Journals:

And then, of course, there are our journals. I’ve been keeping a journal, on and off, for years so it’s natural that I’d use the ones we make to write in. I’ve built up quite a collection of them over the years. Some of them I keep at home as personal diaries; some of them are well travelled and taken out and about to record notes and thoughts. It’s always fascinating to look back through them at the person I used to be. Here’s a small collection of mine.

earthworks journals - personal collection of leather journals

If you’ve stumbled across this blog post and don’t know what we do here at Earthworks Journals then you can visit the ‘home of the handmade journal’ here earthworksjournals.co.uk

How to take care of your leather: polish, conditioner or dubbin?

“Look after your leather and it will look after you.”

Ok, that’s not perhaps the most notable of quotes but nonetheless true. Humankind has relied on leather for thousands of years; it has clothed us; it has shod us; it has protected us from the elements; it has protected us from attack; and sometimes we let it become a one sided relationship and fail to repay the love. We forget that leather, although it looks tough, although it gives the impression it can look after itself, we forget that it needs a bit of looking after on occasion.

Having recently launched our own brand of leather conditioner, Earthworks Special Leather Stuff, I thought it was time I wrote a bit about the hows and whys of protecting your leather.

EARTHWORKS JOURNALS - SPECIAL LEATHER STUFF BEESWAX DUBBIN 4

First of all, let’s address why we should protect our leather goods. As we know, leather is a remarkably tough material and this is largely due to its composition. If we cut through a hide we can see that it is made up of countless tiny collagen fibres all enmeshed together in a complex weave; this gives it its strength. When the leather is bent or twisted these fibres are able to slide across each other which gives the leather its flexibility.

During tanning, when a skin is turned into a usable leather, the various initial processes dry out the fibres in the leather; this means the tannery then need to put oils back into the hide, this stage is known as fatliquoring. These oils lubricate the fibres so that they can freely slide across each other as the leather is manipulated. However, with time and use, the oils diminish in any finished leather product and the fibres dry out again. These dry fibres no longer slide freely across each other but rub, chaff and grind which causes them to fray. I’m sure we’ve all had a pair of old boots that have had splits appear in the leather just behind the toecaps; this is what happens when the leather dries out.

So, on occasion, we need to replenish the oils in the leather fibres.

There are a bewildering array of leather products and finishes out there and, if you ask any leather worker, they will have a different recommendation for you.

Let’s start off with the basic shoe polish. I’m sure we all have several tins of good old Kiwi shoe polish in the cupboard; I certainly do, they’ve been there for years and all have that familiar rattle of hopelessly dried out polish (they do this because they are spirit based and all that spirit evaporates over a period of time, leaving the dry wax), in this state they provide as much nourishment as a dry river bed .

kiwi shoe polishes - how to care for your leather - earthworks journals

These high-shine polishes, being spirit based, are made from petroleum distillate mixed with a wax blend. Of course, these vary in quality with the higher end products using carnauba wax and the lower end products containing paraffin wax. If you want a quick glossy, high shine on a pair of shoes then this stuff certainly does the job. The downside is that it has little or no conditioning properties; it’s very much the glamour approach to leather care, although your shoes may look healthy and well cared for on the outside, underneath they are slowly dying from lack of nourishment.

At the other end of the scale are the specialist oils such as Mink Oil and Neats Foot Oil. These do a great job at conditioning your leather and are especially good for outdoor leather-gear as they help protect against the elements. We have an old Pashley tandem which we made the saddles for from a nude vegetable tanned leather, we treated these with Neats Foot Oil and it darkened the leather to a lovely golden glow and they still look as good as new after several years. However, care needs to be taken when using oils such as these as it can be easy to over-saturate the leather which will cause the leather fibres to swell and the integrity of the leather to break down.

pashley tandem - handmade leather saddles - earthworks journals

Between the basic shoe polish and the specialist products are a whole host of leather preparations which contain varying ingredients and at varying prices. It can be difficult to know which to trust. Decent quality leather goods can be, as we know, quite pricey; this is mainly down to the price of the raw material and unfortunately decent quality hides, like the ones we use here at Earthworks Journals, are very expensive. So, how do we know which leather conditioners to trust on our premium leather goods? If you visit any forum on the internet where they discuss leather you will find heated debates on the very subject; a preparation that one person recommends will be hated by another person. It’s all down to trial and error and personal choice.

Let’s take, as an example, a popular leather conditioner which many people swear by. It’s made by a respected manufacturer so we would think it would be good. It’s called Aussie Leather Conditioner and it’s made by Fiebings. I purchased a tub as I’d heard good things about it.

fiebings aussie leather conditioner - how to care for your leather - earthworks journals

As we can see from the label, it proudly proclaims ‘with beeswax’ under the title, but it has no other ingredients mentioned on the label. On trying it on a scrap of leather it went on quite nicely, it’s easy to apply, but I thought it felt a bit light, a bit insubstantial. So, I dug a bit deeper and found the data sheet for it online:

http://www.tlfsafety.com/PdfFiles/2199-00%20ISO_MSDS.pdf

As we can see from this data sheet up to 70% of the content of Aussie Leather Conditioner is Petroleum Jelly (Vaseline), up to 35% is Aliphatic Hydrocarbon (I’m guessing that this another petroleum based substance), and a maximum of 15% wax; and even this 15% isn’t beeswax, just a rather vague ‘natural and synthetic wax blend’.

This is not to say that it’s not a good product, some people obviously love it, but it’s just not for me. However, it is good to try these different products to find out what your particular favourite is.

Being traditionalists, we tend to go back to basics here at Earthworks Journals. All of these preparations have evolved (or devolved, as some may suggest) from the ancient and original leather conditioner, dubbin. We’re lucky that our leather supplier also manufactures some of the finest bridle leather in the UK and they still manufacture traditional, old-fashioned dubbin. Proper dubbin contains just three ingredients, beeswax, tallow and fish oil; and this is still how our supplier makes theirs, using the best quality of all three ingredients.

We use this dubbin on our journals and on all of our own personal leather gear. It gently melts deep down into the leather fibres as you rub it in and buffs to a soft sheen. You only need to use it sparingly and you don’t need to do it too often, a little goes a long way.

Another added bonus dubbin is that it smells beautiful. There are many products out there that claim to be traditional dubbin, but most of them are heavy on the petroleates. Dubbin should have a soft, rounded smell and a creamy feel, it you find one that smells like chemicals and feels like vaseline, then it’s probably not a traditional dubbin.

After speaking to our supplier they agreed that we could share their dubbin with our customers so they sent us a vat of it and we decanted it into some rather attractive little aluminium tins and you can buy it from our website here:

https://earthworksjournals.co.uk/collections/leathercare/products/the-earthworks-special-leather-stuff-all-natural-beeswax-dubbin

However, don’t take my word for it. We love it here are at Earthworks and rarely use anything else on our leather but, as I said above, a leather conditioner that one person sings the praises of will be hated by another. You might like our traditional dubbin or you might not like it but, if you haven’t found the perfect product for your leather goods yet then this could just be it!

EARTHWORKS SPECIAL STUFF - BEESWAX DUBBIN - earthworks journals

Introducing our new Personal Size Organiser

We’ve had customers asking us to start making a smaller 6 ring binder so, at long last, here it is.

This is our Personal Size Filofax compatible organiser. At the moment we only have it listed in black but we can also make it in brown and dark brown:

Personal Size Organiser – Black

As always, when we introduce a new item to our range we offer a discount. So, we have a 10% discount on this and all other binders and organisers on our website over this weekend (ends Midnight 3rd July 2017).

PERSONAL SIZE ORGANISER - SALE ON ALL BINDERS AND ORGANISERS - EARTHWORKS jOURNALS

Au revoir, eBay ~ or, sour grapes only produce whine.

We don’t like to publicly rant or whine about things here at Earthworks. We believe that the buying experience for our customers should be like a lovely evening at the theatre, you should just experience the best part and not be privy to all the stressful stuff that goes on behind the scenes. However, for the sake of solidarity with our fellow online sellers, what follows is a bit of a whining rant.

EBAY SQUEEZING THE LITTLE MAN - EARTHWORKS JOURNALS

Doing what we do for a living, making things and hoping the buying public will exchange money for those things, can be quite an unstable existence at times. We have no problem with the actual making of the things, we’re confident about that, it’s the bit that comes naturally to us; but it’s getting those things in front of the buying public which can be the tricky part.

Samantha and I started making things in the mid-1990s. Of course, this was before the time when everyone had a computer in their home and when the Internet, to most people, was just some vague and suspiciously ethereal entity used only by governments, backroom boffins and Sci-Fi criminals. What on Earth could a couple of simple craftspeople want with anything like that? No, back in the olden days, before ebay became popular, before Etsy was even a twinkle in a proto-hipster’s eye, the only real recourse for selling our goods was the humble craft fair.

We had our first craft fair stall in 1996 and it was terrifying. We’d never shown the things we made to anyone other than friends and family so to put them out there for sale was a daunting prospect. It was only a tiny church hall type of a thing and we made £36.50 which, to us then, was a roaring success. Over the next nine years we went on to bigger and better fairs and shows, travelling all over the country.

It was exhausting!

Ok, we were full of the vigour of youth back then but working all hours Monday to Friday to make stock and then to travel and sell at shows at the weekends really takes it out of you. There was just no let up. And then there was the constant worry of the possibility of not making any money, which happened often. Anyone that works the shows will know that there are so many variables at work which can decide whether you’ll come out of a show relatively wealthy and happy or completely skint and miserable; the time of year; the weather; the co-incidence of a big sporting event; the weather; the death of a major public figure; the weather. But, it wasn’t all bad, spending the weekend camping in our converted van in the grounds of a stately home in glorious weather with crowds of people queueing to buy your goods and telling you how wonderful your work is can be a great experience; and we met some fascinating and incredibly talented people on the circuit too.

But, all good things come to an end. The shows got more and more expensive to attend, and the attendees got less and less, so, we in turn were making less and less money at them. We found we were getting progressively poorer and progressively more exhausted. It looked like we were going to have to give it all up and get proper jobs. In 2005, as a last ditch effort we decided we’d have a go at this internet thing and put something up for sale on this website we’d heard about. It was called eBay.

It was quite a slow start but we soon built up a successful shop on eBay and were able to cut the shows out completely. We still went to them, of course, but as punters instead of sellers. We’d see all of our old friends still manning their stalls and we’d tell them about how incredible eBay was, how we were still selling our goods even though we were out gallivanting. The old stalwarts were an untrusting lot though and most declared it to be a flash in the pan, this fashion for online selling would soon pass and we’d be back at the shows with our tails between our legs.

We loved eBay back then. Selling online freed up so much of our time so we could concentrate on growing the business. In the following years we opened a shop on Etsy and set up our own website. Everything was good.

Then, a few years ago, the rot began to set in. Ebay suddenly wasn’t such a nice place to be, new management came in and, with them, new rules, restrictions and regulations. It seemed that every few months we were having to update every single listing on our shop, including having to take new photographs, to keep up with their constantly changing image size requirements. While we were doing this we were treated to more and more factory produced competition (some of them even having the gall to steal our designs!), so our humble selves sank further and further into the black, unseen depths of the eBay ranking systems. Then they decided to penalise us for not being able to send out items out within two days of purchase, there was no room on eBay for custom made goods any more. They were sapping the love out of our business by constantly sending us emails to tell us how they would punish us with lower visibility and ever escalating fees if we didn’t conform to what they wanted us to be.

And then, of course, in 2014 eBay failed to keep up with changes to the Google search system which meant that we were becoming even more invisible!

To top it all off, a few days ago we received an email from eBay telling us that from July of this year (2017) every single one of our photographs on our eBay shop, the photographs we have spent countless hours working on, will all go into a central eBay catalogue and will be free to use by any eBay seller in the whole world. Well, isn’t that just incredibly magnanimous of you eBay? How lovely of you to give away our hard work to anyone that asks for it. Of course, this isn’t going to benefit the smaller sellers on eBay, they are the ones who have been toiling away, like us, to produce the photographs; this is only going to benefit the massive sellers, the ‘pile it high, sell it cheap’ sellers; they’re the ones eBay want to develop on the back of the those that still have a passion for what they do.

 

However, our Etsy shop has gone from strength to strength. Our own website ticks over quite nicely and, as some of you will know, we’re in the process of building a brand new online home for Earthworks Journals which will hopefully be even better. With this in mind, we’ve made the decision to close our eBay shop for good.

If any of our eBay customers would like to know where we are then you can visit our website here:

EARTHWORKS JOURNALS WEBSITE

Or our Etsy shop here:

EARTHWORKS JOURNALS ETSY SHOP

Twelve long years we’ve been with you, eBay. It’s traditional to give silk as a gift for a twelfth anniversary present and, although I admire anyone who has the wit and imagination to break with tradition, I think giving us a big box of despair instead was a bit of a kick in the teeth. We’ve poured our heart and soul, and our time and money, into our relationship with you, eBay, but it’s time we moved on. As a great philosopher once said:

“At first I was afraid, I was petrified, I kept thinking I could never live without you by my side; but then I spent so many nights thinking how you did me wrong and I grew strong. I learned how to get along.”

So, it’s au revoir, eBay! I’d like to say it’s been nice knowing you … but we both know that would be a lie. I’d like to say, it’s not you, it’s me … but we both know it’s you. Sure, we had some fun in the old days, but you changed and the bitterness set in. So, eBay, by the time you read this message, I’ll be gone.

But then, I doubt very much you’ll even notice me leaving.

 

POSTSCRIPT

If there are any other small businesses out there, crafts-people, artists, vintage goods sellers, who feel stuck in a rut with their selling outlets (we know from the eBay forums that there are many of you) then we know how it can feel like you’re desperately trying to swim against the spiralling waters which are trying to drag you down the plug-hole. Just remember that these outlets need you to exist, you’re the creator and they are merely the middle-men. They often seem to forget that we, as sellers, are their customers and we should be treated with same respect as our customers expect from us. So, if one outlet isn’t working then don’t let them drag you down, get out there and find what works for you.

We’re lucky to be living in an age where there are so many possibilities.

What we do in the quiet times.

Well, the thing is, we rarely get quiet times. Sometimes we long for quiet times but, the paradox is, if things are quiet then business is slow and if business is slow then there’s the worry that we will not be able to keep a roof over our heads and that worry drowns out the peace of any quiet times we may have had in the first place. I would call it a vicious circle but, when all’s said and done, we know we’re quite lucky to be doing what we’re doing and it’s really quite a pleasant circle to be in.

Luckily though, our customers keep us busy pretty much all of the time. We’ve been getting more and more people sending us their custom designs to tool onto the covers of our leather journals and binders.

We love this!

The vast range of uses our customers put our work to astounds us and you can see a few examples on our custom gallery here:

CUSTOM GALLERY

Usually March and April are our quietest months of the year, they always have been. In our seventeen years of business it has always been the same. January and February are busy, March and April are slow, May gets busy again and it stays that way for most of the year, getting hair-tearingly busy towards Christmas. However, this March and April, although a little slower than the rest of the year, have still been pretty busy.

We would normally be using the relative peace of the springtime to develop new ranges, something we rarely get time to do at any other time of the year. But this year we’ve had to put that aside so that we can do something far more important.

We’re making a new online home for Earthworks! Here’s a sneaky screenshot from the new homepage:

Earthworks Journals new website 2017 preview

It’s about time really, our website has been with the old host for years and although they have been generally quite reliable they seem to be resolutely refusing to move with the times. We still don’t really have a satisfactory way for people to browse our site on mobile devices! So, we will be saying farewell to our old host, we will up anchor and sail the good ship Earthworks to a more civilised land where mobile compatibility comes as standard and where SEO has been discovered.

Our old site is obviously still up and running (so please continue to buy, as usual) while we’re behind the scenes creating the new one. When we first had the idea we thought, “That’ll be a quick and easy job, we’ll have it up and running in a few weeks”. That was back in January. We have become very, very aware that it has been a very, very long time since we built the last one. Even though basic templates make things easy, the strange and esoteric modern coding is, well . .  strange and esoteric!

Here at Earthworks we are much more at home with physical tools than we are with virtual ones. We are skilled with things that cut, groove, indent, gouge, split and stain. Put us in front of a computer and you’ll find us, at best, scratching our heads and, at worst, slumped over the desk sobbing with despair.

Earthworks Journals leather tools and celtic design

But, we insist (perhaps ill-advisedly) on doing every single thing within Earthworks ourselves. Call us pernickety, call us control-freaks, call us obsessive fools (you wouldn’t be the first), but we will get there. The new website will be created. Perhaps later rather than sooner, but we will get there. And it will function beautifully, we insist upon it!

And when it’s finished, it will be a glorious thing! No more clunky old website. Earthworks Journals will have a sleek new home.

You must come and visit when it’s done. We’ll be sending out an invite to all Friends of Earthworks when it’s complete so you can come and let us know what you think.

What do you mean? You’re not a Friend of Earthworks? Very well, you can sign up on our website in the footer on our homepage. After all, you won’t want to miss out on our Grand Opening Discount Weekend!

EARTHWORKS JOURNALS

17 years old today!

Earthworks Journals, 17 years of handmade journals.

Earthworks Journals is seventeen years old today!

Who’d have thought that the little amoeba of a business we conceived all that time ago is edging its way cautiously into being a proper grown-up? We feel so proud.

All of that nurturing we did in the early years certainly paid off. Ok, we were quite lucky in that it was always quite well behaved and mostly did what it was told. There were a few sleepless nights when we’d lay awake worrying about it and talking about its future; but everyone does that, right?

And then the last couple of years were a bit tough, but those mid-teen years are always a bit tough. All that work we put in while it was young, trying to socialise it and get it seen in all the right places fell by the wayside. The next time we looked Earthworks was 16 years old and the internet had decided to change all the search engine optimisation rules while we weren’t looking! Honestly, you can’t take your eyes off them for a moment! Still, we caught it just in time and they’re playing together nicely again now.

We thought, as a treat, we’d buy Earthworks Journals a special birthday present this year. It’s been knocking about in a rather clunky old website since it was young and, to be honest, it’s beginning to outgrow it. It still looks ok, if a little old-fashioned, but it is a bit over-complicated, the payment gateway is a bit on the creaky side and it’s impossible to make it look good on mobile devices (which isn’t great as half the world seems to have thrown away their desktop computers).

So, in the spirit of modernity, we’re in the process of creating a shiny new website for Earthworks. We see all these slick young websites coming along with their fashionable good-looks and modern, if somewhat aloof, ways and we think that if we gave Earthworks a spit and polish and a bit of a trim then we could fit its gruff, home-crafted ways into one of those sleek vehicles without losing any of its affability.

So, a very Happy Birthday to Earthworks Journals. We’re proud that it’s still here after 17 years, all thanks to our wonderful customers, new and old. It’s all very exciting, you’ll soon be able to visit Earthworks on a proper up-to-date website; we’re working on it at this very moment and we’ll let you know when it’s ready.