If you’ve ever visited our humble little leather shop at 56 Chiltern Street, you’re unlikely to have been released without a cross-examination of your bag/coat/shoes/insert-beautiful-item-of-clothing-here in the distinctly charismatic Yorkshirian manner of our commander in chief, and in my opinion the most talented leather jacket tailor in London; Pauline Harris.
Whether you have or have not yet had the pleasure of meeting Pauline, I’d like to offer you the opportunity to get to know her a little better. So I enticed her with a cup of Yorkshire Gold and forced her to sit down (no easy feat) and answer some questions.
How did you get into the leather industry?
‘I started in an apprenticeship when I was seventeen in a small workshop on Division Street in Sheffield. It was with two young female designers – they were self taught, and started making little bags before progressing to clothing. This was the 80’s so a lot of pastel leathers…not exactly my thing but I loved it there and learned a lot. I was there for about four years, I really think if I hadn’t done that I wouldn’t have been able to go back to it; it meant I had a skill, so I could then go off and do what I wanted with the confidence that I knew I could work.’
What are the challenges of being a leather tailor as opposed to a cloth tailor?
‘One of the biggest challenges occurs right at the start of the process with the cutting. Cloth is consistent – it has been woven to create an even fabric. Leather on the other hand is a natural material, so skins can vary so much; they might have different shading; natural markings; different strengths or thicknesses in areas. For example, a sheepskin is likely to have some weaker parts of the skin, which are fine to use on areas such as the pocket or underarm, but can’t be used for the lapel or front panels – not on a quality garment – it’s essential these parts are made with the strongest skin so that they will sit well and look good. So you have to know how to work around all of these obstacles and cut your pattern cleverly with the least amount of waste. Therefore the cutting is vitally important and is in itself a very specialised skill.
Also there is far less room for error with leather than with cloth. You essentially get one shot, as once you’ve sewn it you’ve created visible stitch marks which would ruin the garment if taken apart and re-stitched, and it needs to look clean – you can’t keep overworking it. In cloth you can use techniques to fix things, like steaming errors out for example, you can’t in leather – basically it needs to be right first time!’
Pauline Harris, Leather Jacket Tailor
What is your favourite thing about leather?
‘The same as what is most challenging about it – that it has so much character. It really is never the same; if you order the same skin again it will always be slightly different. Sometimes that’s irritating…but it makes it really interesting to work with and gives garments so much personality.’
What is one of your favourite memories from your leather tailoring career to date?
‘When I was twenty one I finished my apprenticeship in Sheffield and travelled around the world for about seven years, I don’t think I touched a needle in that time! A while after I got to New Zealand I decided to stay, and one day walked past a leather manufacturers, knocked on their door and asked for a job. I can’t tell you how delighted I was to walk into the studio and be greeted by Ruby; a 6ft Maori transsexual who ran the workroom; always walking around cigarette holder in hand wearing slippers and a tabard apron. Ruby was lovely and a beautiful sewer, she became one of my best friends for the two years I worked there, and really helped me get back in the saddle after such a long time away from working with leather. I learnt a lot from her.
And then there was one of my first ever jobs after starting at General Leather; altering the Queen’s red suede coat, which we had also made. Still one of my best jobs to date!’