North House Folk School, the leather tote bag edition

Three years ago, I took a sweet grass basketry class at North House Folk School in Grand Marais, Minnesota. Grand Marais is on the North Shore of Lake Superior, nearly to Ontario, and a draw for its natural beauty and outdoor recreation as well as its arts. Not as much is open in the winter, but the lake is always a draw.

This time, I made a hand-sewn leather tote bag with Candace LaCosse. Candace has a shop and studio in Duluth, Minnesota, which is about two hours south on the southern tip of Lake Superior. Candace makes and sells shoes and bags, baskets and wallets, and much more through her shop and other venues. We walked into the classroom to piles of vegetable tanned cow hides, which are big and heavy and stiff.

Using a template, we cut out the bag and handles.

You cut a groove into the leather, mostly to guide where you place the prong chisel. This stitch groover tool takes some practice.

Making the holes for the stitches.

The thread is linen, and needs to be heavily waxed. Pro tip: look for beeswax candles on sale!

Beginning to stitch.

Using a piece of leather to cushion the table from the chisel. It gets plenty of use.

The entire first day was to sew the handles, two pieces sewn together for each handle. No one finished; we all took homework back to our hotels to finish stitching. I returned in the morning with the completed handles.

I decided I wanted an interior pocket, an extra…

And, I decided to personalize it.

Sewing the handle on the bag. This was challenging, trying to line up the inner and outer handle ends, sandwiched around the bag.

Here’s all the pieces assembled – the handles are sewn on and riveted, and the pocket is attached by rivets only. I also decided to add a flap closure, which is sewn on.

At this point, I’m running out of time. I have yet to sew up the sides of the bag, and sew the triangles that will give the tote its flat bottom. Basically, there was enough time for one bag extra, but not two. Candace suggested that I start sewing the sides of the tote from the bottom, enough to punch the holes for the stitching of the corners. This, I do. Then it’s time for the long drive home.

On Monday, I sew up the sides of the tote at the shop while waiting for my car to be serviced, and go directly to work. Arriving early, I sew. I finish both of the sides except for THE LAST HOLE. I hadn’t gotten it fully punched.

Later at home, I find a nail and punch the last hole, then sew the triangle corners. Here’s the bag inside out.

This was not easy to turn right side out. Candace was telling us about a style of shoe that you make inside out, and how difficult it was to turn – I bet! I finally grasped the sides of the bag and literally used my foot to make it turn. And, the final product!

The leather will soften and patina with age.

I can picture making something out of leather again. You don’t need to have a lot – the stitch groover and the prong chisel and a needle (and an awl – how can I not have an awl?!) are the only tools you need. Add leather and linen twine and beeswax, and creative options abound.


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