Leather Craftworker

The Job and What's Involved

Leather craftworkers work on the production and manufacturing of many different quality leather items. This may include high-value leather saddlery, footwear, furnishings, leisure and specialist sportswear, automotive interiors and fashion accessories like bags, wallets, gloves, belts or jewellery. In many cases, leather craftworkers also design the products they make.

A leather craftworker may specialise in one or multiple parts of the production process. Some may start their career at the 'wet end' as a tanner and leather dresser. They wash the raw animal hide to remove salt, and then treat, tan and dye it to achieve the required quality. Other specialist craftworkers include:

  • Stakers, stretchers and togglers, who squeeze the hides through machines and shape them.
  • Splitters, who use sharp knives to split hides to the required thickness.
  • Shavers, who remove remaining hair and ensure hide sections are even.
  • Sprayers, who apply colour and protective surface coatings.
  • Buffers, who soften and buff the leather to give it a smooth, even finish.

The leather is sent in bales to manufacturers. The craft techniques used in its manufacture vary, depending on the products being produced. Typically, specialist jobs exist for:

Clickers/Cutters - who cut out patterns from the leather hide and linings.

Skivers- who thin the seam edges, making it easier to stitch.

Machinists - who sew the hide and linings together, usually using a heavy duty stitching machine.

Cleaners - who remove rough edges, spots or marks.

Some leather goods manufacturers, particularly in footwear, employ people to assemble all the pieces together, as well as fitters, who attach linings, zips or handles. Specialist tools are used for different techniques. Many craftworkers today still use traditional methods.

Quality inspection is often the responsibility of leather technologists during the wet process. However, craftworkers may supervise others within a team and check that quality standards are being met.

Some craftworkers specialise in saddlery, making or repairing bespoke saddles and bridles for horses, and sometimes bicycle saddles. For more information on becoming a saddler, see Saddler.

Leather craftworkers usually work 39 hours a week. This may involve some shift and weekend work, especially if leather workshops are attached to tourist attractions. Part time and job sharing opportunities may exist. Some employers outsource work to home-workers.

Work places vary depending on the size of the employer, ranging from small workshops to large factories. Activities the leather craftworker specialises in also affect how strenuous or intricate the work is. Those involved in the wet stage of preparing leather may do lots of carrying, lifting and bending. They may also be exposed to various cleaning chemicals, polishes, preservatives and glues.

Craftworkers that cut, assemble and manufacture leather products often use sharp tools and industrial sewing machines. Usually seated for long durations at a workbench, they complete intricate, sometimes repetitive tasks. Employers typically provide protective clothing and equipment. Factory workspaces can be quite noisy.

The starting salary for an apprentice leather craftworker may be around £9,000 in the first year of training.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

It is estimated that around 8,000 people work in saddlery, footwear or the leather goods sector. With more vacancies than applicants, demand for new entrants to reach a skilled level is currently high.

Employment opportunities exist UK wide. However, larger regional concentrations of employment exist, notably in saddle and bridle manufacture in Walsall, West Midlands. The South East, East Midlands, South West, Lancashire, Yorkshire and the south of Scotland are other key employment centres.

Companies may employ skilled leather outworkers to do hand stitching and assembly from home, but this opportunity is rarely open to new and inexperienced entrants.

Jobs and Apprenticeships may be advertised on the Society of Master Saddlers' (SMS) website (www.mastersaddlers.co.uk). The society also publishes a list of member companies. Approaching and writing speculative letters to these member companies may help to secure an Apprenticeship.

Education and Training

There are no set academic entry requirements for this line of work. However, some employers prefer people with strong practical skills and GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3) in English and maths.

The typical route into leather craftwork is through an Apprenticeship. Candidates are likely to work in a production or manufacturing operative role during the Apprenticeship, which usually lasts 12 months.

Members of the SMS also run structured Apprenticeship schemes.

Apprenticeships and Advanced Apprenticeships provide structured training with an employer. As an apprentice you must be paid at least £95 per week; you may well be paid more. A recent survey found that the average wage for apprentices was £170 a week. Your pay will depend on the sector in which you work, your age, the area where you live and the stage at which you have arrived in the Apprenticeship.

Entry to Employment (e2e) can help to prepare those who are not yet ready for an Apprenticeship. In addition, Young Apprenticeships may be available for 14- to 16-year-olds. More information is available from a Connexions personal adviser or at www.apprenticeships.org.uk.

There are different arrangements for Apprenticeships in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

For further information visit My World of Work www.myworldofwork.co.uk/modernapprenticeships, Careers Wales www.careerswales.com; and for Northern Ireland contact www.careersserviceni.com.

An alternative route could involve training at a specialist college before entering work. Some private establishments run part-time saddlery/leather courses. Contact the SMS for further information.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Training in the leather production and manufacturing environment usually involves working in an operative role alongside experienced leather craftworkers. During training, apprentices can work towards various industry recognised vocational qualifications, including:

  • NVQ/SVQ Level 2 in Footwear Manufacture.
  • NVQ/SVQ Level 2 in Leathergoods.
  • NVQ/SVQ Level 3 in Footwear and Leather Products Manufacture.

Saddlery apprentices typically work alongside a master saddler for six months before attending 16 one-week course modules at the Saddlery Training Centre. Training usually lasts three years, with apprentices completing regular coursework within the work environment.

Short private courses are also available at the Saddlery Training Centre, focusing on specific saddlery techniques.

It is possible to work towards City & Guilds Levels 1 to 3 Certificates in Saddlery, with options in bridle, harness and saddle making.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

Leather craftworkers should have:

  • Steady hands and good eyesight.
  • Some mechanical and practical ability.
  • Skilful handling of various tools.
  • Patience and good concentration skills, as work can be detailed and slow.
  • Good attention to detail.
  • Knowledge about the different processes involved in leather craftworking.
  • A responsible, careful attitude to health and safety, especially when working around potentially hazardous chemicals and sharp implements.
  • Some artistic and creative ability.
  • Team skills, as well as the ability to self-manage workloads.
  • Good financial and business awareness if self employed.

Your Long Term Prospects

Many companies in the leather industry, particularly saddlery, are small operations. Therefore, promotional prospects may be limited. With larger employers, promotion to supervisory positions may be possible.

To progress further, many leather craftworkers become self-employed.

Get Further Information

The British School of Leather Technology,
University College Northampton, Moulton Park,
Northampton NN2 7AL
Tel: 01604 735500
Website: www.northampton.ac.uk

The Saddlery Training Centre,
3H Stanley Court, Glenmore Business Park,
Telford Road, Churchfields, Salisbury SP2 7GH
Tel: 01722 341144
Website: www.saddlerytraining.co.uk

Skillfast-UK, Richmond House,
Lawnswood Business Park, Leeds LS16 6RD
Tel: 0113 239 9600
Website: www.skillfast-uk.org

The Society of Master Saddlers (SMS),
Green Lane Farm, Stonham,
Stowmarket IP14 5DS
Tel: 01449 711642
Website: www.mastersaddlers.co.uk

The Worshipful Company of Saddlers,
Saddlers' Hall, 40 Gutter Lane, London EC2V 6BR
Tel: 020 7726 8661
Website: www.saddlersco.co.uk

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