Hermes: how leather goods are made
This week is Hermès week. There will be a series of pieces, based around the ‘expat artisan’ that sits in the Bond Street store, making repairs, embossing products and generally giving advice. Her name is Claire, and over the years she has done many such services for me, including monogramming my much-loved Ulysses notebook and advising on the altering of belts.
Hermès has long been the only designer brand I have any time for, due to its fanatical craftsmanship and support of artisan production across France. Some other French brands – notably Chanel – perform a similar role, but not in the areas that closest to my heart: leather and silk.
And I think the presence of craftsmen working in the stores – not for show, but performing useful jobs for customers – is one small demonstration of the Hermès attitude.
In this first post Claire (top) will demonstrate the work that goes into Hermès leather goods by making a simple clochette – the bell-shaped leather case that hangs from a bag and protects its keys.
The first stage is to shave down the edges of the hourglass-like piece of leather using a small paring knife. This will create a flat surface for the glue to adhere to and, later, for the stitches.
The edges are then painted with a dye that is specific to the colour of the clochette, both to help preserve the leather and aid the aesthetic finish. Next, a long heated iron with a grooved head is used to score a line around the edge of the leather (below) – after being wiped down on a leather mat to remove any traces of previous dyes. And a second iron, with a flat head and heated to a higher temperature, is pressed along the dyed edges to smooth them and help the dye penetrate. Lastly, the edges are polished with a strip of sandpaper.
The number of layers of dye depends on the thickness and type of leather. This clochette made from a grained calf will require two. Other skins such as goat and crocodile require more, while thick edges like the top edge of some handbags (which can be made of up to eight layers of leather) can require nine or ten layers.
Wax is applied to the edges and melted on with the flat-headed iron, to seal and waterproof them. A rag with wax already on it is also rubbed along the edges, the friction of which melts its wax onto the surface.
The clochette is then glued together. Here a contact glue is used, a stronger version that is usually used in repairs. When such pieces are made in the workshops they use ‘aquagum’ – water-based glue. The edges are then hammered to ensure flat and even contact.
When the glue is dry, stitching can begin. This is a saddle stitch, involving two needles looping around each other – the same technique used on the welts of bespoke shoes and on handmade luggage. It is stronger and yet more flexible than any stitch a machine can work, and cannot be replicated by a machine because its needle cannot change direction.
As readers will know from previous posts on Cleverley shoes and Alfred Dunhill luggage, this stitch uses an awl to pierce the leather and then help draw the opposing needle through the hole. Claire has two awls with her here. Indeed, such is the volume of equipment required for such work that she usually needs about 70 different pieces when she travels to give demonstrations.
Biggest but perhaps most personal among those pieces is the sewing pincer. This long tweezer-shaped piece of wood is held between the legs and grips the leather. It is made specifically for the artisan, as its length is crucial to remaining comfortable while stitching in this position.
Even threading the needle is interesting. It pierces the waxed linen thread a couple of times, wrapping the resultant loops around the needle, before inserting the end through the eye and pulling up those loops up over the top. This creates a very strong knot.
Rather like watching bespoke shoes being made or a jacket being basted, this process leaves you feeling exhausted and admiring of the work that goes into such a small leather product. And of course makes you want to buy one (they are used on men’s bags as well).
Next posts: Hermès training in Paris, the men’s bags, and I fail spectacularly at saddle stitching.
Photography: Andy Barnham