What does 'handmade' really mean?

Category: Travel Journal

'Handmade' is a big buzzword in the apparel industry. Both big companies and small are jumping at the chance to use words like 'artisan' to describe their products. 

Unfortunately, the word 'handmade' has been so over and misused when it comes to apparel and accessories, that is really doesn't mean anything at all. 'Handmade' to the apparel/accessories industry has become 'All Natural' to the food industry. 

Let's break down the steps of how bags are made to determine the following:

  • What steps can and are done by hand with a hand tool?
  • What steps can and are done with a person using an electric machine but require hand-skills and care?
  • What steps are done with a person operating a machine on an assembly line?

    1. Tanning Leather: As you've probably read from our previous posts or other sources, there are 2 ways to tan leather - Chrome Tanning (about 90% of bags) and Vegetable Tanning (about 10% of bags).

    For the sake of time, we will simplify the difference here. 


      If you want to read more about the difference (especially the price of Chrome Tanned vs. Veg Tan), check out our post here.

      While both processes obviously use machines, if you were going to brand your bag as 'handmade', it would seem to be a little misleading if you were using Chrome Tanned leather. 

      Satchel & Page process: Vegetable Tanning

      2. Cutting: There are 2 ways to cut leather. By hand, or by die cutting. To cut by hand, you take the pattern and press it firmly against the leather using a weight. Then you take a cutting knife and trace around the pattern. You do this for every piece of leather that goes into the bag. 

      For die cutting, the first step is to make the metal die based off a digital image of the piece of leather being cut. You can make any shape and include holes for rivets in the die. The bigger the piece of leather you want to cut, the more expensive the die. Once the die is made, you take the die and leather hide to the die press machine. The machine, which is operated by a person, pushes the die into the leather to cut the leather.

      The advantages of hand cutting is that there is no up front cost to make a die, and no cost to buy a die press machine. One disadvantage of hand cutting is that is takes a long time. The bigger disadvantage of hand cutting is that if not cut perfectly, the leather can look uneven or sloppy which obviously has a tremendous impact on the aesthetic of the bag.

      The disadvantage to die cutting is the up front cost. Additionally, if you tweak the design of the bag, you must buy an entire new set of dies most likely. The advantage to die cutting is that each leather piece is cut 100% uniformly and all leather pieces match 100% to the intended pattern. 

      Satchel & Page process: Die cutting

      3. Stitching: There are 2 ways to stitch a bag. Using a sewing machine and hand-stitching. Some companies use glue instead of stitching in some places but we won't get into that. 

      Hand stitching on left, machine stitching on right. 

      The advantage to machine stitching is that it's quicker, and more uniform for the most part depending on the skills of the sewer. 

      The disadvantage to hand-stitching is that it takes a lot longer. Also, the stitches may be slightly less uniform but that depends on the skills of the person doing the hand-stitching. The advantage to hand-stitching is that it is generally more durable but that depends on the application. Additionally, you can use a thicker thread when sewing by hand. So if you like the look of heavy waxed thread, hand-stitching looks better aesthetically. 

      Satchel & Page process: Combination of machine and hand-stitching depending on the application. 

      4. Edge Finishing: There are different ways to finish edges on leather products. They can be burnished, oiled, painted, and unfinished. 

      We won't get into all the different ways, but essentially, edges that are finished will hold up better over time compared to edges that are unfinished. When edges are unfinished there are at higher risk of fraying. 

      Burnishing edges takes more time and skilled labor. There are machines that can be used in the process, but primarily it's done by hand. 

      Watch out for companies who say they leave their edges unfinished because it's 'handmade art' or to emphasize the quality of their leather. That's really a cop out for companies looking to save cost by not going through the extra step of finishing their edges. 

      Satchel & Page process: Burnished and oiled edges finished by hand

      5. Riveting: There are generally 2 types of rivets used in bag production: rapid rivets used in about 95% of bags, and copper rivets used in about 5% of bags. 

      rapid rivets vs. copper rivets

      On left rapid rivets painted copper. On right, copper rivets. Rapid rivets have 2 flat sides. Copper rivets have 1 flat side and 1 side with protruding dome shape. You can also see the difference between chrome tanned (left) and veg-tanned leather (right) here. Which one has a flatter, uniform color and which one has a deeper more complex, color tone?

      Rapid rivets are set using a hole puncher and rivet press machine. 

      The advantage to rapid rivets is they are quick and easy to set. Also, you can paint rapid rivets any color or finish. The disadvantage to rapid rivets is that they are hollow on the inside, which makes far less strong than copper rivets. At points in the bag subject to low stress, you can get away with using rapid rivets, but at points subject to high stress, rapid rivets will not hold up well over time. 

      Copper rivets are set by hand using a hole punch and metal setter to ensure they are set flat. If you're interested, here is probably the most boring video ever about setting copper rivets

      The disadvantage to copper rivets is that they take some time to set and require a skilled worker to ensure the rivet is set correctly. Another disadvantage to copper rivets is that they only come in copper. The advantage to copper rivets is that they are the strongest rivets known to man. Very important when you are designing your product to last a lifetime.

      Satchel & Page process: Copper Rivets


      I've seen chrome tanned bags, cut by die, machine stitched, with rapid rivets branded as 'handmade.' There's nothing wrong with a machine based process, but let's call a spade a spade and not mislead people.

      On the other hand, I've seen bags with uneven cutting, sloppy stitching, and unfinished edges sold for over $600 because they are branded as 'handmade art'. Handmade should not equate to sloppy and careless workmanship. 

      Our philosophy for each step is to use the method that yields the best combination of durability and aesthetics. The result is a process that is primarily performed by skilled workers using a hand tool, but using machines when it yields the best result.  

      If you made it all the way here, thanks for reading.