The Leather Lowdown with Local Designer and Craftswoman, Hannah Joan Newton

Hannah Joan Newton first came to my attention when I spotted her gorgeous, vegetable tanned leather Carryall at Gastown’s One of a Few boutique. She has a deep appreciation for materials and an ethos that favours investment, process and craft. She’s an amazing and knowledgable talent, but the Masters of Architecture candidate (yup, she does that too!) isn’t all seriousness and work…

Where did you grow up? I grew up in the country on a farm. My dad is a carpenter and a farmer and my mom is a superhero who raised 5 kids. I moved to Nova Scotia as a teenager and called Halifax home for a decade before I came out to Vancouver. I still go back and forth between the coasts a lot; I can’t seem to stay away from either one for too long.

How did your upbringing affect your choice to get into leatherwork? Both my parents are very creative. My mum has an eye for very well made things and taught me well. My dad is an artist in his own way, and his father was an architect. My grandmother, Joan, is also a painter and made costumes for Cirque de Soleil back in the day. I learned a lot from her, and from my brothers as well who are all very hands on. Making things just runs in the fam, I guess.

“…there will always be leather scraps in my bed and laundry piles in my studio.”

Something you learned growing up on a farm that is still surprisingly valuable? We had to entertain ourselves growing up because we didn’t have a TV or anything like that. I just had a lot of siblings and a pond. I developed a pretty solid imagination and got good at keeping busy with my own little projects. I also have a lot of patience when I work, in the sense that I can do monotonous tasks for a while before I get sick of them (like hand sewing for days). I feel that all stems from my upbringing.

What is your current neighbourhood and what makes it “home”? I live in East Van down by the water. This part of Vancouver reminds me of Halifax quite a bit. The shipping yards and the industrial area in general has a lot of the same characteristics as the harbour back east, and a lot of the same smell. I also love being able to walk down the street and see familiar faces, and that happens a lot down here.

Something from the East Coast that you wish was in Vancouver? My witch sisters.

Your neighbourhood haunt? Trans Am on Powell Street.

Drink of choice? Expensive red wine. Lol.

Tastiest thing you’ve eaten in Vancouver? We recently had the tasting menu at Torafuku. It was amazing.

Describe your studio space. Much smaller than I would like it to be.

Is it important for you to discern between your work and home spaces? It is important, and I wish I was better at maintaining the divide. I share a live/work studio with my partner so it’s very difficult for it not to overlap when we are both working. I usually leave the house in the morning and go get a coffee just so I can feel like I’m walking to work on the way back. That said, there will always be leather scraps in my bed and laundry piles in my studio.

What was the first piece you ever made? The first time I worked with leather was a bit ridiculous. I found two large garbage bags full of leather strips in a dumpster outside of school and decided to make a full jumpsuit by braiding and knotting them together. It eventually turned into a performance piece for an art show at NSCAD University. It took 2 people 3 hours to lace me into it. All I can say is that it was 2007 and I may have watched Sin City a few too many times…I like to think I’ve come a long way since.

Something that you haven’t made yet but would like to? I’d love to get into custom upholstery.

A tool that you couldn’t live without? Is it corny to say my hands?

How do you combat “creative blockage”? I sketch a lot of my ideas down, so if I’m ever in need I just pull out my old notebooks… or I will hit up Gucci Official and drool for a little while.

How do you pick your materials? I’m pretty selective and like to do it in person. I also like to source my materials as locally as possible. I think it’s really important to have a solid understanding not only of were things came from, but what kind of environment they were made in.

You use a lot of natural, untanned leather. What is the biggest draw about this particular material? Firstly, to quickly correct you: the leather is tanned, with vegetable tannings.

Oops! My mistake. Tell me more… There are a few ways to tan leather and vegetable tanning is by far the most eco-sustainable method, but unfortunately it’s not the most common. There are so many benefits to using, and subsequently supporting, this method of tanning. The reasons I choose to use veg-tan leather center around ideas of slowing down consumption and considering what we wear and how it’s made. If you want to buy something, buy something that lasts and do your research about where it comes from. Leather is highly durable. It can last a lifetime and then biodegrade once you are finished with it. Vegetable tanning is also the oldest and most practiced way to tan hides. It’s an art form in itself and practiced by craftspeople with important knowledge to pass on. I think it is so valuable to keep traditional old world methods alive. Lastly, it develops a patina that far surpasses any manmade, sped-up aging process. If you have ever worked in your own veg tan product you will understand what I mean. I like to note, anything produced on a mass scale has their imbalances, and veg-tan isn’t an exception to this. But at least with veg-tan the negatives don’t impact the environment. They mostly just impact my wallet, and I’m okay with that. It’s a time intensive process, and people need to be paid fairly.

“With veg-tan the negatives don’t impact the environment. They mostly just impact my wallet, and I’m okay with that. It’s a time intensive process, and people need to be paid fairly.”

A lot of people are scared of and/or don’t understand the concept of this type of leather (especially in rainy Vancouver). Advice to a potential bag-owner? It’s true, and I think your point raises a bigger question. Why do most people not know what leather looks like before its been dyed? Hopefully, after people read this they do some research and get a better understanding of the whole process. Then, my advice would be to just give it a try. Its takes a while to work in, but its worth it. And get it wet, it’s not a big deal. All my bags are heavy duty and meant to be beaten up. All the imperfections eventually work into the patina and make it that much more special. Some other general advice passed along to me, that I feel is pertinent to this conversation: Don’t wear plastic in any shape or form, unless sports are involved.

A material that you haven’t used but would like to tackle? I would really love to make my own custom hardware out of solid brass, or silver, or gold. I’ve very recently started to hot press a 14K gold makers marks and offer custom initials on my work which has been a very exciting learning process. I’ve been working with a book binder at Old English Binder in North Vancouver who specializes in rare and vintage book repairs. He has been teaching me old world leather techniques. Its been a really interesting experience.

What’s the biggest challenge of working with leather? The biggest reward? Because I work alone and hand sew everything I think the biggest challenge is finding the time to do everything, but I guess the biggest reward stems from overcoming this and having a final product that you know is as good as it can possibly be, and that you didn’t cut any corners making it. It is also so rewarding when someone asks me to make something as a surprise for someone they love. I usually end up doing a bunch of extra detailing to make it really special – I can’t help it. I feel really honoured that they would trust me to make something worthy of their special occasion.

How has your practice changed since you started? For a long time each bag I made was very different. I would learn something from one, and then apply it to the next. Ive tried a lot of different techniques and honed a few skills over the years, but I still have a lot to learn. Even though leather can be quite technical, I like to keep things simple. I’ve figured out what I like, and I work within an aesthetic that has been growing along with me.

What do you listen to while you’re working? It really depends on how I feel. Often I don’t listen to anything. CBC gets a lot of play in the mornings. I’ve just learned of this band called Micachu and the Shapes, so I’ve started to listen to a few of their albums recently.

If you weren’t making bags, what would you be doing? When I don’t make bags I work as a designer and project lead for Measured Architecture, a residential architecture firm here in Vancouver. Because my leather work is a solo venture, I really enjoy the collaborative work environment there. Everything the firm does is thoughtful and considered, and I really respect that. They also value working with local artisans. We collaborating a lot on custom designs, for furniture or millwork, so I get to meet and work with other talented craftspeople regularly.

An unusual or unexpected source of inspiration? I get really inspired by the people who I make things for, especially if I am making something very custom. I feel strongly that it’s much more likely for something to be well made if its made for someone specific, and not for stocking a shelf with.

How many bags do you own? I have two bags: a black backpack that I made for myself, and a vintage Coach clutch that my mum gave me.

A Vancouverite who you’d love to own one of your bags. I’d love for not one, but for all my friends to have a bag of mine. I’m slowly working towards making that happen, one birthday at a time.

A bag (not your own) that you’d love to own. Very tough question. There are so many I want. But I won’t regret saying Hermes. Birkin. Black. Gold hardware.

The last thing you purchased? Rogue Territory Slub Stealth SK 17oz Japanese Selvedge denim jeans. Swoon.

A big-ticket item you’d break the bank for? A 1985 Honda XR650L.

A guilty pleasure? Multiple cappuccinos before noon.

A good habit/ritual you have? Swimming, everyday if I can.

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A bad habit? I asked my boyfriend to answer this question and his response was that I buy the same shirt over and over. Same colour, same style, just in different brands and slightly different sizes, and that I also do the same with shoes. Lol. I guess its true.

Where do you see yourself in one month? Three months? Doing the same thing, very happily.

Three things that you’d like to accomplish in 2018? 1. Plant a garden. 2. Drive across Canada 3. Get better at answering interview questions.

Lastly: tell me something weird that’s in your bag now (no cheating!) I have a little collection of playing cards that I’ve been collecting over the years. I pick them up whenever I see one on the street. It’s strange how often it happens now that I keep an eye out. I got 5 at once the other day which was really exciting. My plan is to get a full deck one day.

For more leather treasures and travails, follow @hannah.joan_

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