A leather craftworker works with a wide range of handcraft tools and semi-automated equipment to make and repair shoes, clothing, and other leather products.
Leather craftworkers are skilled workers who use a range of techniques and equipment to make and repair shoes and other leather goods. Depending on the nature and size of the business they work for, leather workers may be responsible for the entire craft or repair process or they may focus on one particular area e.g. cutting out the leather or adding the finishing polishes.
Some leather craftworkers work for large manufacturing companies, whilst others work in a high-street shop, in a small workshop, or even from home. As well as shoes, leather craftworkers employ specific techniques to make a range of leather goods such as bags, purses, belts, saddles, re-enactment clothing, and armour and coverings for books or tablewear.
Leather craftworkers use a wide range of hand tools, machines, and other technological items. At times, they work with potentially dangerous equipment such as knives, saws, and awls. Some leather workers, particularly those involved in the design process, also use computers and computer aided design software.
Leather craftwork will suit those who enjoy working creatively and independently for long periods of time as it involves concentrating on detailed processes and using intricate techniques for most of the working day. Many leather workers deal directly with customers. Thus, people skills are very important, as is an awareness of running a business since many leather workers are self-employed.
Leather craftworkers starting out in the field can expect to earn between £11,500 and £13,500, although this figure will vary depending upon the precise nature and size of the company. With greater experience, the expected annual salary can rise to £18,000 or more, with successful self-employed leather craftworkers tending to earn the highest wages.
Leather craftworkers are responsible for part or all of the process involved in making or repairing shoes, saddles, and other leather goods. Typical tasks include:
- Taking measurements for shoes and clothes
- Drawing/designing a pattern (this may also be done by a pattern worker)
- Cutting out leather sections from a design pattern
- Stitching leather sections together by hand or machine (some leather workers may also use glues or other solvents)
- Fitting linings, buckles, eyelets, and other fastenings
- Applying a finishing product such as wax, polish or stain.
- Reheeling shoes
- Repairing shoes and other leather products
- Ordering and collecting materials
- Fitting shoes and made-to-measure clothes e.g. re-enactment armour
- Marketing and selling products in shops, craft fairs, festivals, or over the Internet
- Managing accounts
- Dealing with customer enquiries/complaints
There are no specific qualifications required to work as a leather craftworker, although like most careers, it is useful to get appropriate training through a relevant qualification, training course, or apprenticeship. Good practical skills are valued highly by employers and it is also advisable to have GCSES in both English and Maths.
There are various courses available in leather craft, including NVQs in leather production, leather goods and footwear, and leather products manufacture. For those individuals working specifically in the craft of saddlery, there is a City & Guilds Certificate available in Saddlery, levels 1, 2, and 3. A degree or diploma in fashion design, textiles or a broader craft related subject will also teach relevant skills which will be useful when designing patterns, cutting leather, stitching, and finishing.
Working as a leather craftworker requires individuals to possess particular knowledge and skills, including:
- Good attention to detail
- Manual dexterity
- Creativity and design skills
- Excellent practical skills
- Good communication skills
- Good people skills (particularly important for leather workers who deal with customers)
- Accuracy when measuring and cutting patterns and leather
- The ability to use specialist tools and equipment
- The ability to concentrate for long periods of time
- The ability to work independently and as part of a team
- A responsible attitude when using equipment
- Knowledge of computer aided design software (if relevant)
- Knowledge of health and safety issues
Leather craftworkers usually work indoors, either in a factory, shop, or workroom. In larger companies, they will work alongside other shoe makers but they often work independently, particularly those who are self-employed. Leather working involves using potentially dangerous tools and equipment but with appropriate training, serious risks are minimised (although small cuts and nicks from hand tools are to be expected).
Leather craftworkers typically work a 37-40 hour week, Monday to Friday, although evening and weekend work is not uncommon, particularly for those who are self-employed, when demand can fluctuate dramatically.
Leather craftwork is a highly skilled trade and substantial work experience is vital in order to learn the skills and techniques required to make and repair shoes and other leather products.
There are various apprenticeships available in clothing, textiles, or craftwork, all of which involve leatherwork as part of the training. There are many sole traders and small businesses who are keen to pass on their skills through an apprenticeship or more informal work placement.
Leather craftworkers may be employed by large shoe manufacturing companies or in a high-street shop such as Timpsons. Other leather workers are self-employed, usually working from home or in a small workshop. Being self-employed can be more lucrative and allows leather workers more creative freedom but it also brings the added pressures of marketing, building up a client list, and running a business. It also brings the added costs of purchasing tools, machinery, and materials.
As leather craftworkers progress, they can begin to work in more skilled areas of leather craft, such as pattern design. There are various short courses available which are aimed at helping leather craftworkers improve their existing skills and produce better quality shoes and leather goods. With experience, leather craftworkers may take on a supervisory or training role within a large business or set up on their own making a particular type of shoe or leather product.
Also known as…
- Footwear manufacturing operative
- Leather worker
- Clog maker
- Shoe maker
- Shoe repairer
What’s it really like?
Phil Howard is 56 years old and runs his own business. He works as a clog maker and leather worker. He provides us with an insight into the daily life of a leather craftworker:
“I started leather work in 1983, initially making bags, belts, and pouches for my friends. In 1991, I bought some wooden clog lasts from a retired clog maker and began making my own clogs. Up until 2006, I worked as a manager in a payroll company but two years ago I decided to start working full-time as a self-employed clog maker and leather worker. I currently make traditional British clogs, slip-ons, pattens, leather belts, bags, and re-enactment equipment.
My day-to-day tasks really depend upon my orders and deadlines, which can fluctuate greatly. Sometimes I am rushed off my feet (especially during the summer) and other times, particularly during the winter months, I am less busy.
I make all parts of the clogs and other products myself (including the soles), so a typical day focuses upon one of the various stages of the craft process. I may spend a day cutting out soles or tops, another dying leather, another stitching, and another attaching eyelets, buckles, or applying finishing polishes. Other tasks include cutting out leather from patterns, lasting (stretching leather over wooden lasts), researching techniques, and sourcing materials.
Good quality leather is very difficult to find and is what distinguishes leather craft products from mass produced shoes and bags. Thus, finding a good source is vital. As I make clogs to measure, I usually spend part of my week measuring and fitting customers. Some customers have several fittings depending on the shape of their feet!
During the winter months I tend to spend most of my time in my workroom at the back of the house but in the summer season a good deal of my time is taken up selling my wares at craft fairs and folk festivals or demonstrating traditional techniques in museums or at re-enactment events.
The festivals and craft fairs are where I make most sales, although I also generate business through my website and, most importantly, via word of mouth. I have a niche market but there are very few leather workers who are still making traditional clogs, so there are always people wanting to buy my products.
The best aspect of my job is the variety, since every day is different and no two pairs of clogs are exactly the same! On the downside, the summer months can be very tiring as most of my weekends are spent selling my products at festivals or catching up on orders. This year, I didn’t get a weekend off work until October!
To anyone thinking of doing this job, it is well worth finding someone who can train you to use particular techniques and equipment. Many of the tools I use are very difficult to work with unless you have someone to show you how to use them. I would also advise people that this is not a job which will ever make you a millionaire. You need to have enthusiasm for the things you’re making and a love of the job, particularly if you are thinking of starting your own business.”