The Leatherbound Project is something I’ve been working on for a few years. It’s the result of my own ignorance and desire to understand the ancient craft of leather working. It’s a multi-faceted project that is attempting to combine the beauty of well crafted works of art, the personalities of their makers and the cultures that embrace them.
My name is Ben Roe. I’m the owner of a small leather atelier, a motorcycle builder and enthusiast, a design professional and an underachieving traveller. My goal for this project is to spend time on the road, examining the different aspects of the world of North American leather craft and perhaps a little more.
When you think of leather, what’s the first thing that comes up? Finely crafted purses and wallets? Cowboy boots? Maybe it’s motorcycle jackets or the shadowy world of fetishes. Regardless of the end result, leather is a trade that permeates the lifestyles of most of humanity, but how much do most of us really know about leather and the people who make a living bringing it to us?
Part 1) The Journey
The most essential part of the project is traveling around the U.S., Canada and Mexico to meet and interview the people involved with the leather business, from artisans to tannery operators. My choice of transportation is my motorcycle, which will likely be retired after the long hike. The initial route is somewhere around 5,000 miles over the course of 6 months. Much of my time will be spent camping, crashing on friends’ couches and abusing the free wi-fi and charging stations at random coffee shops. I hope to collect a lot of new friends on the way, as well as a great handful of inspirational stories from the road.
…But wait! There’s more! Since much of the premise of this trek relies on the goodheartedness of new friends and neighbors, I thought it only appropriate to give back to the man who taught me to be a good neighbor in the first place. That’s why I’ve also started a GoFundMe page to help raise money for the Fred Rogers foundation. (That’s Mr. Rogers, for those who didn’t know his first name.) The hope is to show the same sort of amazing human foundation that he brought to all os us in our PJs as children. Click here to visit my fundraising page.
Part 2) The Primer
Much of this project will be sadly educational. There’s a big difference in the different types and grades of leather, as well as the manufacturing methods and the impact on the economy and environment. There’s a massive rift between a waxed linen saddle stitch and a machined double-back stitch. There are so many things that average consumers don’t realize about leather goods, and why similar bags can be thousands of dollars different in price. I don’t want to step on any toes on my way, but I also want to enlighten those who are interested about leather products, before they choose something that they intend to hold dear for a lifetime.
Part 3) The Celebration
Leather working artists aren’t always well represented, and are certainly not well compensated. I know from my own perspective that my joy comes from making items that lovingly house and protect the things that my friends and family hold most dear – from chef’s knives to pocketwatches and travel journals, I usually end up spending more time and money than I had expected, making these gifts. But it makes me happy.
On my trip, I hope to contact and spend time with some of the finest artists in North America that you’ve probably never heard of. Makers of saddles, shoes, handbags, belts and bracelets. But I’m also planning to visit the people behind the scenes, who tan leather, and make the tools and raise the animals that are most essential to the process. From interviews and photographs and hopefully a whole lot of shared information, we might be able to glean a reason for why this timeless art has endured the millennia.
Once I’ve decided to put the kickstand down and recoup from a year on the road, the end goal is to take all of these notes, the photographs and blog posts and edit them into a (leatherbound?) book. I sincerely hope that everyone who picks up my pages of ramblings can come away with a greater understanding and respect for the artistry and craftsmanship in something as simple as a guitar strap. Once that’s completed, I’ll likely sleep for a decade.