“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 The 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:
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!
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!))
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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