Art Endeavour: Leather crafting with Melissa Tofton and Tamzin Lillywhite

by average-eye-con

A few months ago, after splitting with my boyfriend of the past year I attended a leather crafting workshop. I’d been single for a week and didn’t want to mope. I saw a designer I admired advertising a place on the course via her instagram and thought, why the fuck not? A chance to meet new people and learn new skills? Lets go!

The course

The two day course was led by artisan leather crafters Tamzin Lillywhite and Melissa Tofton at the Cutting Rooms. Both have been working with leather to create stunning pieces that live somewhere on the border between high fashion and fetishism. Tamzin’s work often has an otherworldly sculptural like quality and Melissa’s immensely wearable woven strap creations are reminiscent of shibari. They’re knowledgable and friendly and keep the class sizes relatively small so they can fairly divide their attention among the students. It’s really obvious how in love with their craft they are as they talk about the techniques and I found them to be really inspiring. They’re talented and very driven, so it was a real joy to work with leather under their tutelage.

On the first day we learned to identify a variety of tools of the trade, as well as how to cut and finish a strap. This included:

Bevelling – using a bevelling tool, a small section is sliced away at a diagonal angle along the edge of the strap. This rounds the edge and makes it feel more comfortable against the skin.

Skiving – slicing a thin layer from the back of the leather to make it more flexible, used when fitting buckles.

Burnishing – daubing the edges of the leather with gum tragacanth and rubbing with a tool or linen to close the open fibres of the leather.

On the second we covered two types of stitches and basic moulding techniques.

While a completed piece can endure the test of time and seem exceptionally tough, the practice of leather craft requires care and delicacy. It’s a natural material, not to be wasted and to be treated with the utmost care and respect. While we all made something to take home with us, the most valuable thing was being taught how to be economical and self sustaining crafters. It was really driven home that you don’t need a whole lot of tools, space or money to get started. Just enthusiasm and a craft knife… oh and some leather helps too ^_~.

The Material

Although always admiring leather pieces, I actually own very little bar a jacket or two. As my favourite jacket is a traditional biker garment it is incredibly thick and hardwearing, so it was a little surprising to find that leather is actually a really delicate material to work with. We were working mostly with vegatable tanned bridlery leather that I believe was around 2mm thick. While in it’s raw state it appears a bit stiff and unfriendly, once worked it can be come incredible supple. The top (nice) side is surprisingly soft and if not treated carefully can easily be grazed or damaged. Something that can forgotten when you see it in its disembodied state is that this was the skin of an animal and that the life of that animal will impact the way the skin behaves. So even though pieces made from the same skin might look identical, there will be these wonderful subtleties of detail that make each and every item truly unique.

I went in with

Nothing. Zero knowledge, aside from the fact that leather looks shit hot.

I came home with

Basic strap cutting and finishing know-how including burnishing & edge dying
Basic stitching and moulding technique.
Two finished pieces: Cage choker & bangle

Getting there

The workshop was held at Melissa’s studio, a short walk from Manor House or Seven Sisters tube stations.

The location

The Cutting Rooms are absolutely awesome, they’re a really inspiring place to be. A large converted warehouse space, there’s a pretty good community vibe going on, with a street market often happening nearby. Hanging near the workbenches are a selection of taxidermy pieces, as well as items from Melissa’s collection. The workshop is on mezzanine floor, overlooking the communal living space but no-one pays any mind to the comings and goings of the craft student. Also of note, are the silks suspended from the ceiling… the space is also occasionally home of circus skills workshops.

The people

I really had a wonderful time with the other work-shoppers. I got to meet the brilliant Katherine of the Quite Delightful Project, as well an eclectic mix of fashion students and professionals.

Value for money

Top notch. The knowledge I gained and the connections forged made it a totally priceless experience. I’m now comfortable with making pieces of my own which is pretty exciting.

Further opportunities

Melissa is currently running a Kickstarter to make and launch her new collection. I highly recommend backing as you can not only nab yourself some beautiful leather goodies but also workshop places!

Stuff I’ve made since

I’ve tried to exercise my newfound skills since attending the workshops and am happy to report I’ve made a couple of bits! A kitty collar and belt for myself plus what I’ve dubbed an ‘infinity cuff’ for someone special. I’ve got a waist cincher belt in the works as well as a few other ideas kicking around.


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