The art of leatherworking

We make an eclectic bunch, sitting in a sunny D2 café on a Saturday afternoon: a motherly insurance worker, a young French architect, a vivacious quality assurance inspector and a writer. Together, we’re the Etsy version of the Breakfast Club.

What’s brought us here is a love of the handmade, turning raw materials into something useful, something more than the sum of its parts which in this case is leather and waxed string.

“I love that leather is flexible,” says Thanh, our workshop instructor. “You can use it for almost anything. Also, our hands are so amazing. From a simple concept, our hands somehow find a way to make it come to life. With machines there’s a limit. The creativity of the human mind is boundless.”

After earning a degree in Interior Design from the Ho Chi Minh City University of Architecture, Thanh found herself bored after a year stuck behind a computer. After a short course on leatherworking at the Women’s Cultural Center, countless YouTube videos and much trial and error, Thanh decided to channel her trained aesthetics and attention to detail into starting her own leather workshop, Freewill Leather, some three years ago.

“I found that I could work with leather all day and not feel bored,” she says. “There’s something so natural and malleable about leather, requiring a completely different set of skills than working with fabric.” Her parents nurtured her newfound spark. “Follow your passion,” they counseled. “Then you’ll stick with it. When you work for money, you’ll only find yourself chasing after the next higher-paying job.”

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To the soundtrack of slow French jazz in the sun-drenched café, Thanh patiently helps us learn the skills of grooving, measuring, cutting, punching, stitching and edging. We set off to work on our individual projects – a leather wallet for everyday carry for the beginners, a more complicated coin purse for those with some leatherworking experience.

Clustered around a long table covered with cutting mats, awls, snaps, mallets and other paraphernalia, we look like a table of elves gone slightly awry, brows furrowed, lips pursed in concentration, each lost in our own little world.

Happily, Thanh floats around the table, offering a word of encouragement at a crooked stitch, suggesting to turn a seam vertically to better eyeball its straightness and sharing further insight into certain techniques. “When you hand-make something, you can make adjustments that machines cannot,” she says as she shows us to start stitching further down the side. “That way, you can double-stitch where the side meets the flap, strengthening the point of contact where the product gets the most use,” she says wisely.

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During the week, Thanh and her four helpers make everything from wallets and notebooks to crossbody bags and gorgeous luggage tags stamped with a map of Vietnam in her small Binh Thanh leather studio. “I just love it when customers get exactly what they want. They can edit dimensions, choose their own colors, have something engraved and find other ways to inject their own personality into the product, rather than just buying something ready-made,” she says.

Teaching the workshops is simply an extension of her bespoke philosophy.

“I remember being very nervous,” she recalls of her first attempts at leading workshops six months ago. “But as people experienced making leather products with their own hands, they were so appreciative. The whole experience was incredibly positive. Working in the studio requires total focus, but teaching involves both creativity and enthusiasm which I love.”

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Thanh offers weekend workshops in various spaces around the city. See more at freewill.lthr on Facebook.

Images by Vy Lam