Tibetan yak leather saddle bags

I finished a pair of these, and attendant acoutrements, just before Christmas–one for me, and one for John. So far I can’t take it out of the house without getting comments, and I hear he’s had the same experience–so it worked…

While walking through Kanze in Kham (Tibet) with John and our friend Sandy, I spied what looked like some sweet leather work in a shop window. We went inside and it was quickly clear that it was some REALLY sweet leather work, and there was plenty more of it; we were in a leatherworking shop, and the owner/craftsman was working there right then. The thing that had caught my eye was the bottom of a saddle bag made from yak leather. These bags were about 20″ wide and easily 36″ long, and sold in pairs (as saddle bags should be…). John and I both thought they were impressive, but what could we actually do with saddle bags? I wondered about making shoulder bags out of them and he liked that idea…and before long we were the proud owners of a pair, along with some extra leather. Back at camp they were widely admired and we sent a lot more business in that direction–and then spent the rest of the trip designing the bags I’d make when I got home. We even bought some yak hair rope from some people in the village where we were staying to re-work the existing cords on the sides.

Back in the states, I started putting together a prototype. Since I was going to be working in leather (heavy yak leather no less), I knew I’d only get once chance–there’s no real re-working with leather, since once holes are punched, you’re pretty much stuck with them. I made the prototype with canvas, plastic, and red sock monkey fabric to represent the red leather we’d picked up for ornamentation. We did the email-photos-and-modify-design thing for awhile until we were both happy with what we were planning (we eventually eliminated the design on the strap).

I got some light pigskin for lining and assembled all of the materials I’d need for sewing, both by machine and by hand. Then it was time for pattern making, cutting, cutting into the exising bags (!), and assembly. If you’ve never done any leather sewing, let me attest: it’s no small task, but I can share the secret: GLUE. You can’t pin leather, and I did use metal clips in some cases, but glue is the answer to slippage, and with a very standard machine like mine, that can be a big problem. Machine-wise the other big key is having the right needles and thread. But still, I did a TON of this by hand–the red designs were sewn on by machine, but pretty much all of the rest of the topstitching (flap, strap, dharma wheels at the sides, etc.) was done by hand. By the end I couldn’t really feel my fingertips anymore.

But WAS IT WORTH IT. There are about a million pockets, pockets inside pockets, and a whole organizer on the inside back. I wound up being unable to use the yak hair rope we got from the villagers, and instead I spun some similar yarn and braided rope from alpaca roving I had on hand (because I am the type of person who has alpaca roving on hand). And if you know me, you know I couldn’t leave it at that; I also made his-and-hers wallets to go along with the bags. The bags are huge; great for a long weekend or whatever in the West, or who knows what in Tibet, so a little satellite thing is completely necessary.

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