Today our menswear dialogue series continues with a look into the world of a leather craftsman Frank Clegg.  Frank has maintained a long tenure at Frank Clegg Leatherworks and creates some of the best leather products in the country, and they're actually made in the country.  The depth and breadth of Frank's product knowledge and expertise is a personal treat and its our pleasure to bring it to you. 

"To be better, you have to be different."

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Frank Clegg -Designer-craftsman. Men's and women's leather goods manufacturer.

Frank Clegg

IG -What about leather makes it so great? There are many other materials that can be used in briefcases, bags and such but some men will only carry leather. As a leather craftsman what is your stance on the material?

FC -As with any product that has been in our lives as long as leather, and which at one time was the only material for certain products, leather brings with it a heritage that the product has rightly earned. Leather to me is much like wood. A beautiful solid cherry table and chairs in its natural color possesses a certain quality that cannot be duplicated by any substitute material.

For this reason, this becomes the standard for the item. As we make changes to this product, such as plywood with a cherry face and edging we immediately lose the details that the original possessed. This said, once I step away from the natural leathers that I have always used, my preference for leather diminishes. If I were given the choice between an inferior leather bag or a canvas bag, my choice would be the canvas bag. But, the quality leather bag would be my first choice. The bags that most people love are usually the older vegetable tanned type that over the years have so much character, and this is only possible with naturally created leathers that have burnished with time, no different than an antique mahogany side table.

Shrunken Leather Messenger Bag

IG - If you're a leather connoisseur then you're familiar with the tanning process. However, most men aren't leather connoisseur's. Can you explain the process? Why is it important? Is one method better than the other?

FC -The tanning process changes the fibers in the hide by takings these dying fibers and preventing them from decaying. Although there are many tanning techniques, such as chrome tanned, brain tanned, wet white, vegetable tanned, urine tanned, etc., there are two popular tannages, chrome tanned and vegetable tanned. Vegetable retanned is taking a tannage like chrome tannage being used in the initial tannage, usually at the backing houses and using the vegetable tannage, when processed at the tannery.

Chrome tanned leather uses chromium in the tanning process, and yields a quality product for shoes, jackets and bags. Some of the properties that tanning leather with chromium achieves, are not able to be duplicated with other tanning processes. The strength of the leather usually makes it the choice of shoe uppers. The use of heavy metals in this tannage requires much Federally regulated treatments to the waste. Vegetable tanned leathers use a very old tanning process that has continued to this day. Although there are many wonderful chrome tanned leathers that I have worked with over the years, veg tanned leathers have always been my preference. The tannage relies on the use of tree bark. There are many different tree types used such as oak and chestnut. Each different tree type yields different characters in the leather and are often mixed to achieve Certain desired properties. Vegetable tanned leathers in the natural uncolored state, is referred to as russet. This russet is a different shade depending on the types of tree bark used.

The vegetable tanned process requires a longer period of time to complete than chrome tanned leathers. Vegetable tanned leather is superior for saddles, case goods belts, western gear. The use of fat liquor, tallow, mechanical techniques, along with dyes, will change the look and character of each tannage. My leather of choice for briefcases is what I currently use now, which is referred to as belting leather. The tannage was developed to produce a superior brief that has the character needed to develop into an heirloom. Think English saddle. For some of my other products I will use the belting, but I also developed a tumbled vegetable tanned leather with a waxed surface resulting in a softer touch. This leather can be used for handbags and luggage, as can the belting, resulting in a bag with a different feel and stand.

Another leather that we use is a shrunken leather, which also a vegetable tanned leather. This leather possesses a totally different look and feel than the belting and tumbled. The shrinking process results in a leather that looses between 30 and 40 percent of its size. What is most important for briefcases besides the leather used whether chrome tanned or vegetable tanned is the design. The handle becomes the single most important item on the brief, if the handle does not feel comfortable nothing else matters. This is one area that other materials have a tough time outperforming leather. If you like a leather product that does not develop and age, chrome tanned is probably your choice. If you want a brief that develops an old world character after years of service, veg tanned is your choice. A well crafted leather product can last your whole career. I have had the fortune to see many of the briefcases I have made 35-40 years ago still in service and being use today. The cost of a quality American made briefcase is not inexpensive, but when you consider the years of service you will receive, it becomes a true value.