Collecting Handcrafted Leather Goods: A Guide for Enthusiasts and Collectors

Collecting Handcrafted Leather Goods: A Guide for Enthusiasts and Collectors


Quality handcrafted leather goods embody artistry and tradition. For enthusiasts seeking unique, carefully made items that will last a lifetime, collecting handcrafted leather represents a meaningful hobby. Leather collections also provide tangible connections to craft heritage.

This guide covers key aspects of thoughtfully building a leatherwork collection, from sought-after antique treasures to supporting modern makers. We explore finding rare vintage pieces along with commissioning custom creations and everything in between. Whether you are drawn to a specific type of item like saddles or clothing, or enjoy leatherworking’s diverse forms, cultivating a curated leather collection can become a deeply personal creative adventure.

History and Significance of Collecting Leather

To appreciate the appeal of collecting leathercraft, it helps to understand the history and cultural importance of leather itself.

Tradition and Heritage

For thousands of years across countless global cultures, leatherworking provided essential items for daily life. Traditional leather goods often became treasured heirlooms passed down through generations. The intrinsic connection between leatherwork and cultural heritage fuels the impulse to preserve special pieces.

Art and Craftsmanship

Beyond utility, decorative leatherwork also expresses creativity and skill. Antique tooled and gilded bookbindings, intricately embroidered leather clothing, and ornate furniture coverings all showcase fine artisanship. Future generations benefit when exemplary works are cared for rather than being lost.

Material Durability

When properly cared for, leather’s inherent durability allows pieces to survive for centuries if stored in stable conditions. The opportunity to directly handle or wear antique leatherwork transports collectors back through time in a tactile way. Leather’s longevity enables collecting.

Considerations When Collecting Leather

As with any hobby, collecting leather requires learning specialized knowledge. These key considerations help guide new enthusiasts.

Authenticity and Condition

With antique leather goods, assessing authenticity and condition are essential. Warning signs like overly stiff leather, brittle edges, or frayed stitching indicate damage. Expert examination can identify doctored or fake pieces. Patience pays when seeking quality specimens.

Rarity and Historical Value

Some exceptional items like meticulously hand-tooled cowboy saddlery or 19th century travel trunks are prized for their scarcity and heritage. Mundane mass-produced items are typically less desirable. Understanding leatherworking history helps ascertain rarity. Provenance detailing an item’s story also increases appeal.

Aesthetics and Technique

Many collectors prioritize aesthetic beauty and exemplary technique when selecting pieces. Condition being equal, a bag with exquisite hand-turned edging is more prized than a coarsely finished one. The maker’s mastery and creative vision elevate the item. Eyeing such details trains one’s connoisseurship.

Purpose and Function

Leather’s inherent functionality means most antique pieces were created for practical use originally. Even decorative items like ornately bound books served a role. Collecting items still usable today helps continue their intended purpose and preserves cultural memory.

Types of Vintage Leatherwork to Collect

Myriad handcrafted leather goods hold appeal for collectors. Here are just some of the most popular categories.

Saddles and Tack

For equestrians, painstakingly hand-tooled saddles and bridles represent the pinnacle of decorative leathercraft. Tack from certain saddlery shops or historic rodeos can be exceptionally rare. Cowboy saddle collectors pay top dollar for prime specimens like those of master 1800s makers JG Saddlery or EA Capps.

Luggage and Cases

With the golden age of travel, early 20th century leather luggage and cosmetics cases became leatherworking art. Companies like Louis Vuitton and Mark Cross hired top leather artisans to fashion luxury travel goods and fittings for royalty and celebrities. These items now enjoy collector cachet.

Books and Bindings

The beauty of antique books often comes from their leather bindings. Elaborately tooled and gilded leather covers and spines elevate books into display-worthy art. Vellum manuscript pages, delicate leather slipcases, and ornate clasps add appeal. First editions sport especially prized bindings.

Clothing and Fashion

Museums and collectors cherish early leather apparel like mens 17th century buffcoats and ladies 18th century leather shoes. Leather jackets from the early 20th century’s advent of motoring are also hotly collected. Contemporary designer clothing fuses leatherworking’s past and future.

Military and Police Items

Antique leather gear with historical significance is beloved by militaria collectors. This includes helmets, holsters, belts, and ammunition pouches used through WWII. Vintage police leather inserts allure law enforcement buffs. Such pieces represent leather’s crucial role equipping forces.

Finding Vintage Leather Treasures

Discovering special vintage leathergoods takes effort but reaps exciting rewards. These tips can aid the search.

Auctions and Estate Sales

Auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s regularly feature remarkable leather items among their vintage offerings. Smaller local auction houses also merit attention. Estate sales in historical areas may yield hidden gems. Studying auction catalogs and previews gives advantage.

Antique Shops and Flea Markets

Brick and mortar antique shops provide the fun of leisurely perusing aisles and displays in person. Longevity helps shops gain access to rare stock. Rummage sales and flea markets can deliver pleasant surprises too, but require time investment. Building relationships with dealers proves beneficial.

Online Sourcing

Websites like eBay and Etsy provide plenty of options, but sorting treasures from tourist trinkets takes discernment. Reputable online antiquities and auction marketplaces offer better quality control. Locating dependable sellers helps amass special finds.

Specialist Dealers and Galleries

Dealers exclusively focused on leatherwork offer informed assistance. For example, Vintage Saddle Co in the UK provides museum-quality equestrian leather collecting. Such specialists provide expertise on items like luggage or luxury goods out of reach for generalists.

Commissioning New Custom Leather Pieces

Alongside antiques, collectors may also commission bespoke contemporary leather goods as unique additions or personalized gifts. Custom pieces showcase fine modern craftsmanship.

Choosing Leather Artisans

Selecting which leather artisan to commission is an exciting first step. View portfolios and reviews to assess makers’ styles and reputations. Many accept custom orders through their websites or platforms like Etsy. For complex projects, direct discussions determine details.

Design Collaboration

The most rewarding commissions involve collaborating with the maker on a personalized design. Provide inspiration images, usage needs, favorite motifs, and any vision details. Quality artisans will further refine the concept and suggest creative options. Their experience proves invaluable during design development.

Materials and Finish Selection

Next, choose leather types, hardware, and decorative accents suited to the piece’s purpose. Decide if finishes like hand-dyed leather or elaborate tooling are desired. Discuss functionality needs like weatherproofing bags. Establishing details in advance prevents surprises in final execution.

Pricing and Timeframes

Custom leatherwork costs more than readymade items, especially if highly ornate or large-scale. Materials, complexity, hardware, and time investment determine pricing. Turnaround also spans weeks or months. However, the result becomes a cherished collectible reflecting shared craftsmanship.

Caring for and Displaying a Leather Collection

Once acquired, leatherwork requires careful preservation and display to fully enjoy while protecting items.

Storage and Handling

Leather is skin and still vulnerable to humidity, heat, light exposure, dust, and pests. Storing in an acid-free, climate-controlled environment minimizes deterioration. Limit handling to avoid body oil damage. Never use harsh chemicals or polishes on vintage leather.

Cleaning and Restoration

When cleaning antiques, always start with the gentlest method like vacuuming dust. If stains or sweat marks appear, lightly dampen a soft cloth with mild soap and water to spot treat. Avoid soaking leather. For restoration needs, consult accredited leather conservators to avoid permanent damage.

Display Choices and Methods

Display keeps a collection engaging without harming it. Padded hangers help leather clothing hold shape. Book stands support fragile antique texts while protecting bindings. Glass cabinet displays prevent handling of delicate items. Rotate items if direct light exposure is unavoidable.

Insurance and Documentation

Insure rare leather pieces, especially when loaning them to exhibitions. Also photograph and catalogue collection holdings. Document details like measurements, condition reports, provenance and maintenance done. This provides helpful records and assists with damage or theft claims.

Expanding Knowledge and Connecting with Communities

Continuing leatherwork education enhances collecting. Connecting with other enthusiasts creates a sense of shared understanding.

Reading Reference Books and Publications

Books focusing on specific leatherware types or history provide invaluable collecting knowledge. Quarterly magazines like The Saddle Knife offer insights into equestrian leather traditions. Auction house catalogs give market pricing guidance. Reading continually deepens understanding.

Joining Leatherwork Organizations

Many hobbyist organizations unite leatherwork devotees. The C.M. Russell Museum Collectors Club shares appreciation for Western leathercraft. Bookbinding enthusiast groups provide community around leather book arts. Such niche groups aid collectors through shared wisdom.

Attending Leather Fairs and Exhibitions

Leather fairs and museum exhibitions educate through experiencing items firsthand alongside fellow aficionados. Gatherings like the Leather Archives open doors to little known but significant niche collections. Being amongst leatherwork ignites inspirations to pursue.

Visiting Historic Leather Sites and Landmarks

Seeing leather in its original functional setting resonates deeply. Spanish colonial leather workshops in Santa Fe or the old Walsall leather district in England provide enriched cultural perspective. Historic tanneries and saddleries tell leather’s overlooked stories.

Future of Collecting Leathercraft

As with every collecting field, trends within leatherwork evolve over generations based on rarity, renewed appreciation, and cultural values.

New Styles Gaining Prominence

Once undervalued categories become newly desirable, like Midcentury Modern leather furniture during the 2010s. Similarly, renewed interest in 1970s punk scene clothing created demand for vintage leather jackets. Fresh styles and eras periodically gain collector buzz based on cultural nostalgia and artwork reassessment.

Authenticity Growing in Importance

Mass manufacturing makes verifying authenticity in antiques increasingly vital. Experts notice doctored pieces being passed as historical crafts. Technologies like radioactive carbon dating leather assist authentication. Collectors will pay premiums for leather items whose provenance and craftsmanship is unimpeachable.

Focus on Sustainability and Ethics

Ethical collecting looks beyond aesthetics to consider virtues like environmental sustainability and humane production methods. Next-generation collectors may favor antiques over new leather, while insisting heritage skills employ animal welfare practices. Collecting will align with shifting cultural priorities.

Personalization and Customization Trends

Rather than existing antique items, some new collectors seek one-of-a-kind contemporary leather pieces personalized to their taste. Custom luggage, clothing, and furniture give originality. Makers may see commissioned bespoke leatherworks rise as mass manufacturing dominates.


As a craft material, leather endlessly transforms in the hands of artisans across millennia yet retains an instantly recognizable sensory appeal. For enthusiasts who appreciate leatherwork’s global heritage, collecting thoughtfully crafted vintage or commissioned leather goods represents a profoundly meaningful pursuit. Each piece connects us to past maker’s skills and passions while inspiring future creative possibilities yet to be imagined.

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