How to Design New Leather Products: An 8 Step Guide with Industry Tips and Tricks

Maybe your company is based around leather goods and you're just starting out, or you are designing leather products to compliment an existing line of products. No matter what your current goal is, leather is just as important now as it was back in the early shops in Italy. 

However, leather is difficult to work with; it's not like many other materials, and thus, design surrounding leather takes a different approach than garments, accessories, and other types of consumer goods.

If you're looking to take your idea for a leather product from conception to completion, read on for our step by step guide, complemented with some of our industry insider tips.

UPDTATE:

The article now contains a few quotes from Dave Munson, the CEO Saddleback Leather Co.

How cool is that?

 

1. Consider function first

Before you think about leather type, color, zippers, stitch types and cool logos, remember that any design for a product is a failure if the product itself does not perform the desired function.

There are many beautiful designs out there, full of rich leather that screams for a photogenic Instagram photo to show it off. But if those products don't meet the user's expectations, that product will never sell. It could lead to bad reviews, negative press, and returns, all of which can kill a great product before it gets off the ground. Beautiful items go in museums, beautiful and functional pieces go into the hands of happy customers.

Here are some questions to consider when designing the function of a piece:

- What is intended to go in/around/on the product?

- In a single sentence, what value does the product provide?

- How will the user interact with the product? Will they carry it with a handle, hold it in their hands, place it within another item, etc?

- At its very basic level, what category does the product fall into, and what other functions are fulfilled by similar products in that category?

- If made out of simple cloth, would you still want to use the product?

When answering these questions, put yourself in the shoes of someone who is just seeing this design for the first time, and make sure it is very readily apparent without detailed explanation, exactly what the product is used for.

 

2. Pull reference

Unless you're on the cutting edge of an emerging technology, you aren't reinventing the wheel here. Remember, leather goods have been around for hundreds of years, and companies today have heritage reaching back almost that far. Therefore, pull reference so you know exactly how your design is similar, and different, from everything else out there.

Remember, it's not stealing to say you want your product to look like X Brand or Y design. You're putting your own spin on these products, making them for your own need, and thus, it is inherently different.

Go to the mall and start with department stores. Then try out some boutiques. Pin the crap out of Pinterest. Look at your favorite brands and discover more along the way. Then you can have comparative conversations with your design team (who may be just you!) about how you differentiate the product, yet ultimately, what it will look similar to.

 

Leather goods display in store

Ok, so maybe you really don't want to go the the mall, but do it in the name of good design, even if its to say what you don't want it to look like :)

 

3. Build a sample

The first rule of building a sample is the first sample will suck and be ugly. Embrace that. 

The second rule of building a sample is to use poor pieces of leather, or a material that is not leather, because see rule one.

The sample is the heart of the design process. Think of it like clay: you'll be adding, taking away, and messing around with a Frankenstein looking piece. No part of what you make for your sample will be the same as the final piece. Use crappy zippers and bad magnets. Don't worry about finishes. You simply want to answer the question: can I build the thing I want to make?

Consider taking apart other leather goods and see how they are made. Or, if you have friends that sew or make leather products, ask if they'll share how they make something. Go to shops and pop up stores and ask makers. Some people will be protective about how something is made if it is integral to their product's success, but many times you'll be surprised as to how chatty people can be.

When you end up with your design, laugh at it and be proud of it, and if it proves out, proceed to the next step.

 

4. Tweak design

Ok so the first one looks weird. Fine. But you can extrapolate in your mind about how it will ultimately work and that's the important part. Now you tweak.

Try building another sample longer, or wider. Put things in it, wear it, carry it. Does it hold the shape you want? Does it sit the way you envisioned? Are the stitches sufficient to hold weight where it needs to be? Are the zippers traveling correctly and making it around any corners? What if you put your label on with this technique instead of the one you chose? Did you put everything and the kitchen sink in it, and maybe need to streamline things a bit?

I like to sleep on the design at this point, see if things come to you. Most of my best design moments happened "in the shower" so to speak, bits of inspiration where the work that lead you up to this point, the messing around and sample building that you did, put you in the spot to make things connect.

 

"Design Matters: We build each Saddleback piece with as few seams as possible. Two or three large pieces of leather sewn together is far stronger than several pieces sewn into a sort of leather quilt. Some companies will cheat you by using a whole bunch of smaller pieces instead of a few big pieces. It's a easy way of lowering the cost of production and diminishing the quality of the product."

- Dave Munson: CEO Saddleback Leather Co.

 

Handmade leather working and design

Tweak, and tweak, preferably in small batches by hand so you don't overuse expensive materials.

 

5. Stress Test

Alright, now build the thing with real materials!

At this point, most of your kinks are worked out, but not all of them. Now build your sample with as close to real materials as possible. It can still be with less than your standard quality cuts, but build it with the actual leather you'll want to use, any other additional materials you think you want, and the real hardware as well. The reason is, we need to stress test your design with actual materials in real daily scenarios over time.

With your product made with the materials you'd like to use, start using the product daily. Overuse it. Be rough with it. Throw it against the wall if you need to. Make sure this product is going to hold up to someone way less kind to it than you are. You might baby your perfect design. Other people expect to integrate it into their daily lives and have it hold up without fault or failure.

Make sure you seams are holding up, that any stitching is staying firmly in place. Make sure your materials seem like they're doing the job you intended them to, anything soft stays soft, hard stays hard, water resistant resists water, color doesn't fade, etc. Make sure your closures work correctly. Make sure it all holds up to the weight of whatever it interacts with.

"Thread Matters: My hope is that the more you know about quality and craftsmanship, the less you’ll get took and feel stupid and the more you’ll insist on quality in all you buy. Thread is so key to making a quality bag, briefcase or backpack. Watch out for the “good thread on top - cheap thread in the bobbin trick. A stitch is made when the needle pushes the thread through the leather from above and hooks the thread of the bobbin. So, the stitches that you see are made with good thread and the stitches on the bottom or under the lining are made with cheap thin stuff (weakest link). Besides saving money on thread, they save time, which is money."

- Dave Munson: CEO Saddleback Leather Co.

Side Note: Munson knows a thing or too about quality materials and construction, all their products come with a 100 year warranty. Yes you read that right.

 

Use it, use it, use it. Get to know this sample and see how long it takes for you to really damage the thing. If that threshold is beyond what you would consider normal use, congratulations!

 

 

6. Create a Pattern

Ok, so you have your sample, it worked to your liking. Now we need to make it.

There are two steps to patterning: the pattern itself and the written rules.

The pattern is pretty straightforward. Make yourself a high quality cutout of each piece you need to make your product.

I use pattern paper from Mood, it's pretty easy and gets the job done.

Here you'll want to take all your measurements as precisely as possible, and cut out your pattern. One of the things I like to do is write the measurements of each side on the pattern paper itself, as well as the piece it goes to and how many to cut of a material in the center. That way when you're really ramped up you can just get in the zone, knowing exactly how many to cut for the piece your working on, and how to lay your pattern to make the best utilization of the leather hide.

Finally, tape the sides of the pattern with scotch or masking tape to help protect the pattern and give it a little extra edge strength to hold up against whatever technique you use to mark your material. 

Next you'll want your written rules. I call this the "Don't Mess This Up List". Every time I make a product there are inevitably a few things I forget or miss or just generally mess up. Write these down! This can be a detailed list of the exact steps to make your product or just a general list of remember to-do's when you make it, but make sure to have this list beside you any time you sit down to make your product.

 

7. Build a prototype

Now you can build your perfect piece. This one is likely to remain untouched for awhile. You'll use this piece for marketing and photography, as well as to show it off to potential wholesalers, bloggers, whoever you're working with and have partnerships with.

This should be the holy grail of your product, the one you take all your pictures of and refer back to in case anything happens down the line that you need to reference the original.

 

8. Refine Manufacturing Techniques

Alright, you have your perfect piece. Unless you're doing one off custom work all the time, a very difficult business model to sustain, you'll likely want to make many of your product, perhaps even hundreds.

First, even if you are outsourcing manufacturing, you'll want to make a few yourself. That way you know the in's and out's of making it. You'll know best practices. You'll know how long it takes, how difficult it is, and thus, what you can expect if you approach someone to make it for you.

If you are handmaking your product, consider breaking the item down into pieces and processes so you can find out what works the best and fastest. Consider each step and how it can be streamlined, batch created, or improved upon. It likely took much longer than you'd like to make one from start to finish, so here is when you look at ways to break up the steps and cut your manufacturing time down.

After that, you have a reliable way to really take a product from start to finish. Whatever your brand and however you're selling, whether it be through an online store, in person at pop up events, or sell wholesale, if you want to make leather goods and product designs that stand the test of time, make sure to do as much work up front as you can before you dive into full on manufacturing.

 

This list comes from ideas and systems that we have in place at Calila that help us use function to inform design and create innovative leather goods that stand out.

Check us out HERE:

Or on Instagram @caliladesigns

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What would you add to this list? Have you designed a leather product and want to share helpful information? Comment and let us and our readership know!

Cameron


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