Start a Leathercraft Business

What is the difference between someone that sews for Prada and someone that sews for Pep stores?

There is no real difference, same skillset, in the luxury category you are going to need more attention to deal but the higher price in the luxury segment means that you can spend more time making a premium product than what you would on a lower-end product where the margins are far slimmer.

Then there are the materials that you will work with, some cost more than others, a leather handbag is worth more than a canvas handbag. Which justifies the high price.

Then there is of course the brand value but we not talking about R20000 handbags here today. We are talking about small business leathercraft.

The more difficult the skill is to obtain, the equipment that is needed to start that business the more it is worth ultimately. We know that sewing is not hard to learn and new entry-level or secondhand industrial machines are neither hard nor expensive to obtain. So why is this not a more popular business? This is actually a popular business in Africa, not so much in South Africa although some of the foreigners that have settled here do it.

The leathercraft business
Leathercraft (aka leatherworking) is the practice of making leather into leather products, so like woodworking, you have various techniques and tools: cutting,  shaping, colouring etc. This can start as small as earrings or keyrings and the usual purses and wallets, spectacle cases, belts, handbags, satchels, briefcases, caps, jackets, shoes and boots etc.

The business and the value chain is made up of the following:
Skills, Equipment and Materials to create the Product or Service

You need to have some kind of leathercraft skills, sewing, I will link to some online courses, but there are so many online tutorials that can teach you. For some reason (I can only assume it is the poor education system) many South Africans cannot self teach themselves from the material they find in books or online, they need a course, someone to hold their hands step-by-step, then to guide them with suppliers and then with the business. Even the most basic stuff they cannot figure out on their own despite having Google at their fingertips.

I’m not going to repeat the same thing over and over again. But there are a few ways to learn a skill:

  • You can take a course (usually the most expensive)
  • You can ask someone who has the skill to teach you
  • You can “work for what we can learn and not earn” to get the skill, but South Africans are too lazy and think they are being exploited (this is how I got started)
  • You can teach yourself and learn via trial and error, offcuts are widely available for you to practice on

Now common sense tells you if you can’t do something one way you do it another, you need to be resourceful in business, and have a “find a way or make a way” mentality.

Besides a skill before starting a business, you need to test your suitability for a business, this has a long checklist (you can look at the older posts that deals with it “Who you are”), but I want to point out temperament and disposition here. This business requires attention to detail and a patient perfectionist attitude.  This is not suited to a quick buck mentality, some pieces will take hours (some a whole day), you are dealing with a high-value material that sells at a premium (and get a return on time invested). If you do not think you will meet these standards don’t do this business.

There are a few tools used in leathercraft: punches, pliers, cutting tools, hole making tools, carving, sewing tools etc. You get cheap ones and you get more expensive ones. I’ve said it before, secondhand quality is better than new cheap. But these tools are not expensive and let common sense guide your decisions.

Leather is an expensive material, but many people are buying it at the wrong places. There are cheaper suppliers of leather that also deal directly with the tannery and you need to find a good supplier. The material is cost-prohibitive for many because they go to the high street guys. That being said the material is still pricey nonetheless. I used to be involved in a leather offcut project and even there the margins are good. Another thing is to familiarise yourself with the types of leather, this should have been mentioned under skills but I’ll add it here. In offcuts, we just sort by hard, soft, croc done. You need more extensive knowledge than that as some leathers (from different animals) are more difficult to work with when you making certain items.

You also need to know the difference between genuine leather and synthetics. I say this because synthetics have increased in quality and to the layman, it may look the same, for example, people who drive German cars like Mercedes think that their seats are genuine leather it is not, that is a material (synthetic, vinyl) called MB Tex

Brand building and selling
The big question. This is the most difficult part of all. To learn the skills in this business is not hard, to buy the equipment is not expensive, to source the material is neither overly hard nor expensive. But selling it and getting a fair price (premium in this case is).  It does not matter if you can create a flawless product of the same quality as Gucci, you need a place to sell it. You cannot sell it on Gumtree or Facebook marketplace you need to get it in front of people who will appreciate the tradecraft and quality.

This is the biggest challenge, many people in this business sell via boutiques, kiosks, handcraft markets etc. But none of that is really an excellent best sales channel where you are going to grow fast. Some have turned to social media but in SA I’m don’t know how popular that business is.

Getting the right sales channel is important, did you see what leather belts cost at some places? It’s literally just a strip of leather with a buckle. If you can find the right places to sell you can make good money.

Why skill is not enough
I have spoken before about the surplus of sewing skills available in the Western Cape (I think it was when I spoke of the satin product business) and how we entrepreneurs can tap into this but it is also a cautionary tale of how you need to get your mindset right.

Fashion is one of the sectors I focus on in my line of work, so I have researched it and kept an eye on the local market since the Seardel days. In Cape Town, the Cape Flats, in particular, sewing is probably the most widely available (legal) skill, we have one of the highest concentration of machinists probably in SA, you will find CMT’s everywhere in little factories, small shops, backyards, bedrooms.

But most are actually unemployed or have so little work that they are twiddling their thumbs most of the time. I’m talking people with decades of experience, some lucky ones have ended up working in high fashion (yep behind those fancy labels are mammie-girls sewing their stuff in dingy backrooms).

But the point I am trying to make skill is not everything, the local textile industry workers made a miscalculation when they sided with the forces of evil (trade unions, communists and politicians) instead of the children of the light (us entrepreneurs) who could have helped them and they, unfortunately, paid the price. With the vast sums of money, they had in their pension funds they could have built a massive luxury industry that could have ended up employing their grandchildren and be shareholders. With a fraction of that money, they could have built high-margin luxury brands instead of following the advice of morons and trying to compete with Chinese imports R12 promo t-shirts. Eventually, billions of rand (billions with a b) of local equipment was sold off for next to nothing, exported overseas where it is used to make clothing that is imported into SA and the workers ended up both poor and unemployed. Anyway I am done ranting here are those links:

Online leathercraft courses
These are online courses, I think it’s a Turkish guy that has shared his fathers skill with the world, now some of the designs will probably not be popular in SA but focus on learning the techniques. If you know those Middle Eastern countries leathercraft has been a trade there for a long time. The courses are not very long so even the low-effort guys can learn something.
DIY LeatherCrafting: Make Your Own Leather Wallet
DIY LeatherCrafting: Making Leather Sandals
DIY Leathercrafting: Make your own Leather Bag in 2 hours

That being said there are also some free tutorials on YouTube where you can learn the skill.