People Profile – Rosanna Clare – Leather Worker

I’m Rosanna Clare and I live and work in the Surrey countryside. I have been running my workshop making leather bags and accessories as well as teaching courses for 3 years now and recently moved from Kent to Cranleigh near Guildford. I now live and work at a craft and business centre called Smithbrook Kilns. Here is a bit about my life and how I got here!

I was born in a military hospital in West Germany as my dad was in the army and stationed there at the time. We moved around every 2 or 3 years as he was posted to different places until my father left the army in 1990 when I was 11. Then we settled in Kent where my parents have been ever since so my teenage years were all spent there. I attended an all Girls Grammar School in Rochester where I spent the whole of my secondary education. From there I went on to study a foundation course in Art and Design, which led me to my degree at Nottingham Trent in Graphic Design. I enjoyed student life in Nottingham and quite enjoyed the course but never felt it was the right one for me. Nevertheless, I completed my degree and then moved to London to find a job!

My mother is a watercolour artist and picture framer and my dad, although he served in the army for much of his working life, is very hands on and brilliant at DIY. His father was a carpenter and so dad has many of his old tools and invaluable skills that my grandfather passed down to him. Rabbit hutches, chicken coop, see-saw, swings, you name it, my dad would build it for us as kids. I grew up thinking all dads did this but soon realised that wasn’t exactly true and that he had quite a talent.

One of my dad’s most impressive projects was building a studio for my mum in the garden. She finally had a large space in which she could spread out and work properly as an artist and framer. He has helped me build a lot of my tools and equipment that I use for my business, especially my workbench that I use now which is the ‘heart’ of my workshop and I could not do without it!

So with such creative and crafty parents I suppose it was inevitable that I would do something similar. It just took me a while to find my ‘niche’. As children, my mother always encouraged my two sisters and me to be creative and got us into making and painting things, mostly to keep us occupied and out of her hair but it did the trick!

As well as being an accomplished artist, my mother is a talented seamstress. She is of a generation who learnt to sew and make clothes at school and this has stood her in good stead. Mum would make my sisters and me many outfits over the years, she even made her own wedding dress and bridesmaid dresses for both my sisters’ weddings, which was very handy indeed!

A see saw my Dad built for us as children

Maybe more out of necessity than desire at the time but Mum was always mending things and I think that mindset has been instilled in me. She has that ‘make do and mend’ mentality which I think, in recent years, with a backlash to the throw away society we have grown accustomed to, has come back into ‘fashion’ big time which is a great thing.

Being creative has always been in my blood and is something I was inevitably going to do although being at a very academic school, this wasn’t a path I was initially encouraged or driven to take. I was quite good at the academic subjects, science and maths in particular. My older sister followed in my father’s footsteps and studied engineering at University. I thought I would probably do the same but realised half way through my science and maths A Levels that this wasn’t the path for me. That was when I started doing more artwork by attending evening classes and I put a portfolio together. I hadn’t even done Art GCSE, I did design technology and channelled all my creativity into that.

Through my portfolio I got onto an Art foundation course and after my A levels I changed direction and pursued art and design. It was a discovery process and I really enjoyed going down the graphic design route. However, after completing my degree, I realised Graphics involves a lot of work on computers and I knew then that I preferred making things with my hands.

This is the studio in my parents’ garden that my Dad built for my Mum over 25 years ago

I first became interested in working with leather whilst walking around Spitalfield’s market in London not long after I graduated. Looking at the stalls of handmade goods, many by fashion graduates, I was really drawn to the unique designs and quality of the material used, particularly the leather bags! However, as a recent graduate, I simply couldn’t justify (or afford) buying one but then I turned down the next isle of stalls and came across a man selling hides of leather. There were all sorts of colours and textures, shapes and sizes and I remember the overwhelming and amazing smell.

Although I had never used a sewing machine, or worked with leather before, I decided there and then that I would have to learn, bought two pieces of leather and asked my mum to teach me to sew – that was it, I was hooked! I spent the next few years practicing how to make leather bags and purses on my mother’s little old Elna sewing machine with just a leather needle and normal sewing thread. It was a hobby that became more and more of a passion. I would buy old bags from charity shops, take them apart, re-use parts of them, look at how they were made and try to reconstruct similar things. A lot of it was trial and error, that itself is design, deconstructing and redesigning something.

One of my earliest commissions was to make a set of wallets for a colleague called Joan. She was getting married and wanted something original and meaningful to give to her four bridesmaids. Joan had seen a photo of a bag I had made from an old leather jacket and liked the idea of re-purposing old but treasured items from both her and her fiancé. I therefore took a pair of her leather boots and his jacket and turned them into purses. I even used the zips from the pockets for them!

One of the many dresses my Mum made for me

Meanwhile, I trained to be a Design Technology Teacher and brought some of the skills I had taught myself into the classroom introducing a bag-making project to my GCSE classes, they loved it! After nearly 10 years teaching in schools, a Masters in Textiles and several courses specifically in bag making, I decided to take the leap of giving up the day job and start my own craft business making leather bags & accessories but also using my teaching experience to run workshops and teach leather craft to adults both in groups and in one to one classes. That was nearly three years ago now and it was the best decision I ever made. The classes are going from strength to strength and I feel that my teaching career gave me the crucial experience and confidence to teach leather craft.

The main ethos of my work is to use leather that either had a former life as a jacket for example or to use offcuts from the furniture and interior design industry. I try to buy as little ‘new’ leather as possible. These days we are beginning to realise how wasteful we are and that we need to do something about it. I was listening to an interview on the radio recently with designer Max McMurdo who has just released a book about Upcycling.

He said Upcycling is just another way of saying ‘make do and mend’, we have done it for centuries, but up until recently we have become too used to disposing of everything. I think there is now a resurgence happening where people are realising its actually trendy to recycle and reuse things. Max mentioned recycling scaffolding boards. They have been weathered and used, are really cheap and are good for making new things when trimmed off and so forth. Upcycling is definitely coming back into fashion and this can only be a good thing for the environment.


The process of turning a large sofa cushion to a bag from start to finish. (From Left to Right)

When I started making bags as a graduate, I didn’t have much money and so, to be resourceful and save money, I would recycle a jacket and make it into a bag, for example. I would have to come up with designs that worked with the seams of the jacket and so, in the very process of recycling, I would create something totally unique, which I loved.

With the classes I now run, people can bring along an old jacket, or trousers or whatever, mainly in leather, that they deconstruct and turn into something new. Many people have these items in their wardrobe that they don’t use anymore but they can’t bring themselves to throw or give away. It’s a way of reusing something that would otherwise just sit in a wardrobe for years. One such student was Linda who brought along this red leather jacket she hadn’t worn for years and turned it into a modern bag!

Apart from workshops, another strand of my work involves repairing leather goods. This is the true meaning of ‘make do and mend’ and it can often just be re-attaching a buckle or re-stitching part of bag but sometimes it is more involved. One of my earliest repair jobs was to fix a briefcase that had developed a tear in the strap and flap. This proved to be quite challenging to fix due to the shape and thickness of the leather but I really enjoyed the task and problem solving is an element to the repair jobs I am asked to do, that I particularly enjoy – giving new ‘life’ to something that might otherwise be thrown away!

Before and After of some clothes to bags

Another recent commission I received was to turn an old leather sofa cushion into a bag. This gentleman came to my studio with one of 8 large sofa cushions from an old suite he was going to burn! He asked me to transform the cushion cover into a bag for his wife. The photos on page 14 and above show the process from start to finish. His wife loved it so much she came back with some of the other cushions and made two more bags herself in my two-day workshop!

So what could have ended up on the bonfire became 3 unique and useful bags instead, what could be better? I’m looking into ways of reducing the amount of brand new things I buy. There are certain leathers that I use to make straps and belts for example, that I still buy new.

However, I endeavour to use more fashion and furniture companies that produce waste leather material by buying their offcuts (at a reduced price) they can’t use, rather than throw them away I can reuse them and then everyone’s a winner!

An old leather jacket, now turned into a great looking handbag

I really enjoy pushing the concept more and getting people to use their hands. I think there’s definitely a repercussion to the whole technological era that’s happening. People are going back to craft and creating things with their hands because they are tiring of all the technology that surrounds us and invades so many areas of our lives.

Looking to the future, I am keen to develop products and classes using less leather or a leather substitute. With more and more people giving up or reducing their meat consumption I would like to look at alternative materials to leather. Some companies are now using the term ‘vegan’ leather for their products which suggests that is it ‘environmentally friendly’ having not been made from leather, a by product of the meat industry. However, sometimes this is just a ‘clever’ marketing way to ‘hide’ the fact that these products are often made from imitation leather such as Vinyl, which is just plastic! This may be better for animals but is it better for the environment?

There have been recent developments using plant substitutes like fungus and pineapple leaves and other things that people are coming up with, as a way of replacing leather. How durable they will be compared to leather I don’t know but this is something I want to investigate and possibly develop in the future.

Purses made using old Leather Boots and a Jacket

With regards to the marketplace for selling my products I advertise online on Etsy and my products are stocked in several shops around the UK. I also attend fairs and markets, which support UK made and hand crafted products and makers. There are, however, some markets where they claim that everything is British handmade, but some products are imported and they just claim it’s British. There’s always going to be this kind of competition although it is diminishing and people overall are genuinely becoming more interested in where the things they buy are made which definitely helps small UK based craft businesses like mine.

Customers like the story behind the product as well. With social media and marketing as a whole, it is about telling a story and making it personal. People like to meet the person that made the bag or wallet that they are buying and being able to personalise it. Everybody I teach, especially ones that have never done anything so creative before, who are not really used to using their hands, are quite astonished at what they can achieve in a day and the quality they can accomplish when they are shown the right way to do things. I definitely think people are more considerate about the products they buy and where they originate.

I have recently written a book of leather projects, which includes 20 items from very simple to advanced, including how to make a fully lined bag from a jacket!

The aim of the projects within this book is to teach people the basics of leatherwork and gradually work up to the more complex items. The projects are also designed so that you don’t have to spend a fortune on tools and materials to get started and, like me, you can start with a small domestic sewing machine and a few basics with the smallest of budgets (so students/graduates rejoice!).

If you would like more information about my courses, commissions, need something repaired or where to buy my book, please contact me at:
Unit 6, Smithbrook Kilns, Cranleigh, Surrey, GU6 8JJ

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