Craftsmanship - Leather work

Debbie Cocklin

explains the craftsmanship of leather work

Picture by LRG Photography

Items made from leather have been found to date back to prehistoric times, when leather hides leftover from animals that had been hunted for food, were used as clothing and to form shelter against harsh conditions. 

Over time people learnt that drying out leather prevented it from rotting and the early days of tanning were started, a process that changes the structure of the cells. 

Various methods were tried and tested over the years to preserve leather including smoking it and even using urine collected from the locals! 

Tanning leather used to take place in the poorest areas of town and the smell was terrible! The process of preparing a hide has altered slightly over the years as now specific chemicals are used. First, the hide is soaked and then hair and the top layers are scraped off and then the hide may be split into thinner layers depending on its future use. 

Then the hide is tanned, there are various methods used depending on the final finish of leather required and its future uses.  The leather is then dyed and finished after the tanning process. 

Chrome-tanned leather - tanned using various chemicals, including chromium sulphate. This is a faster and cheaper process which means the leather can be mass-produced, and the leather is typically used for furniture and clothing. It comes in a larger variety of colours, which will stay fairly vibrant for many years, and it’s normally fairly water-resistant. It is thinner and softer, not making it ideal for tack or anything where it will be under strain. It’s also not possible to carve or tool this type of leather. 

Veg-tanned hide - using tannins derived from vegetable matter. This process takes approximately 8 weeks to tan. It is thicker and tends to be available in more earth-coloured tones. It can be dyed, but the leather is more natural and will dry out and crack if not looked after, hence the need to replace lost oils fairly regularly. It is strong and will potentially change colour throughout the years due to oils put onto it, or even from skin or sun exposure. 

Veg-tanned leather can be made water-resistant but typically veg-tanned leather will absorb water, and this will change the appearance/patina. Appropriate products can be used to prevent this. 

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It can also be tooled which offers countless options for decoration, only limited by the skill of the leatherworker. First, a design is decided, drawn out, and then transferred onto a piece of leather. After the leather has been cased, which means moisture has been put back into the leather to make it easier to tool, a small swivel knife is used to carve the design. Once the design is cut into the leather, a range of stamps and tools are used to bring the design to life. Stamps can also be used to create a repetitive pattern, such as basketweave.

Leather has been a very useful product and its toughness is ideal for protective items of clothing, such as armour, footwear and chaps (worn by cowboys). 

There are many environmental factors that working cowboys need protection from, like rain, cold, heat, brush, and thorns to name a few. Originally, hides were draped across their legs like an apron and eventually progressed to being attached to a belt. Then the leather was made into leggings attached to the belt. Most chaps are made from split cowhide which provides additional grip; helpful for the working cowboy. 

There are various types of chaps, chinks, and armitas which are all traditional items used by horsemen from different areas of the world. Chaps provide full protection to the legs and offer more warmth. In colder climates, it’s common for fleece to be used on the leggings instead of leather. 

Chinks and armitas are better suited to warmer climates, as they allow more air to circulate. Traditionally armitas would not have any metal on them and would be fastened with leather ties: a ‘step-in’ design. 

As time has gone on and fashion has become a big part of western riding and the associated equipment; chaps and chinks have become an item that a rider can totally customise - from leather colour and style, to the tooling and hardware used. 

In the show ring - protection is not needed, except for cattle classes where it’s possible to sustain rope burns, and rodeo where a protective layer is essential to protect the rider against bull horns. It’s common place for the chaps known as batwings to feature sponsors’ logos.

In general, chaps complete an outfit and look professional for classes such as pleasure and horsemanship. Chaps are very important to the overall appearance of the rider. Covering half the body, they set the tone and style of the whole outfit. It is common for lighter leathers and even faux leather to be used, to continue the traditional cowboy look with modern day ease of care and wear.

A rider’s chaps for such classes should flatter the rider, and quite often the chaps are made longer to give the impression of an elongated leg, which looks very elegant. Chaps should give the rider confidence and not hinder them! All too often, off-the-shelf chaps can be tight in the wrong places, such as the hips and the knees. They should be snug. The difference between an off-the-shelf pair and custom made chaps will be huge to riders whose body shape does not conform to what factory manufacturers produce.

Without doubt a pair of chaps will usually be the most expensive outlay when it comes to show attire, but they are a long term investment (provided the wearer’s weight doesn’t change too much). Although, it is possible to buy extender zips to allow a bit more room, and custom chaps can be made with stretch panels, or stretch panels can be added at a later date by a leatherworker. 

For women, chaps look best when the waistband rests high on the natural waist, with no gaping around the thigh on the front. The most flattering style for women is a single concho at the rear. 

For men, the ideal is that chaps sit a little lower, at mid-waist, again with no gaping. A short belt at the rear with two conchos looks best. The leg of the chaps should feel snug and lay flat, with no bunching up behind the knee. It’s important the chaps are long enough to sit nicely on the top of the boots, without excessive stacking. 

Chinks are used in ranch classes and are shorter in the leg typically, with longer fringe. They look more traditional, but allow riders to have a little more freedom with the design; although typically they should look ranchy and be predominantly earth-toned. Discreet personalisation is possible, such as initials or a favourite design tooled on the yoke. Finishing touches like a double or twisted fringe, conchos, buck stitching and whip stitch trims are also an option. 

If you are having chaps or chinks custom made and you are measuring yourself, resist the urge to add a little extra to the measurement. A maker will take into consideration the areas that appreciate a little extra room. This avoids the leggings being baggy on the rider, which is not the desired look and will hinder function. 

The possibilities for customisation are almost limitless, and when considering a pair of custom made chaps or chinks, remember you are paying for custom fit and a quality designed item. Good quality hardware and leather are not cheap, and the time that goes into making a pair of chaps is quite extensive, so bear this in mind. 


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