Making heirlooms from the playroom
Buffing the leather
‘If we can buy groceries with it once a month that would be great.’
By Melissa Shaw-Smith
“My favorite order is when people don’t tell me what they want,” said Derek Shortway. “They tell me what they need it for.” Shortway is the artisan behind Grassroots Leather. His crafting workshop is tucked into a neat corner of his two young daughters’ playroom in Highland Lakes, NJ.
Although he hopes one day to have a separate workroom, it works well for now. While his wife, Taylor, is at work, he can meticulously hand craft a new bag or wallet while the girls play alongside him.
Shortway stumbled across the world of leather crafters a few years ago, shortly after completing four years in the army, including a deployment in Afghanistan. A self-confessed lover of all things old, he had begun collecting vintage watches. Shopping for leather watchstraps, it dawned on him that he could make his own. He set to work with $20 worth of leather scraps, some thread and a utility knife. Self-taught, his main resource has been on-line videos and leather worker forums, building his skills one project at a time.
Soon Shortway had mastered the watchstrap. “I had 10 watchstraps and I remember telling Taylor I want to open an Etsy shop,” he said. “If we can buy groceries with it once a month that would be great.”
Then Taylor asked him if he could make her a clutch. First she had to explain what it was—a small bag for your phone and keys. But once he started working on it, it opened the door on the possibilities of the craft.
“I started looking at leather differently, almost like sculpting,” he said. “Leather starts flat, and then you craft a three dimensional, functional object out of it.”
Juggling a young family and business is stressful, but Shortway has found a true calling in his leatherwork. Late at night, when he gets home from his job as the general manager of a trampoline park, he sits at his workbench while the family sleeps upstairs. “I’ll try and get a little bit of work done and next thing you know it’s three or four hours later. It’s like my brain turns on. I’m focused on something that I enjoy. It’s a place of peace for me.”
It’s not only the act of crafting that draws Shortway, but also the leather itself. He grew up on a farm in Vernon, NJ, where his parents raise cows. “It’s such a beautiful material. It comes from animals. We have to recognize that. If you pull out a full grain hide, there’s tonal variations and marbling, and scars. I just fell in love with it.” Shortway works with full grain leather, whose naturally occurring marks have not been buffed out. Starting a new project, he lays out the hide and searches for those marks, embracing them with his design.
Shortway makes a line of wallets, belts, bags and accessories, constantly changing up his designs as inspiration strikes. Taylor, a project manager by training, keeps the business end of things running.
Precision is the key to making a functional leather item. Shortway carefully measures, and then cuts out the shapes using a shooting technique learned in the army to keep his hand steady and lines straight. There are many kinds of knives used in leather crafting, but his tool of choice remains his utility knife. He’ll go through numerous blades on each project, making sure to keep the sharp tools out of reach of the kids.
Crafting with leather is detail-oriented work; little has changed over thousands of years.
“You have to mark your lines, then poke your holes, then glue your edges, then you can stitch,” Derek explains. He uses a stitching pony to hold the leather as he crosses the two needles and waxed thread over and through each other, creating an even saddle stitch that can’t be replicated by a machine. Once the item is stitched, it’s time to bevel the edges, sand and dye them, before finally burnishing the leather with a beeswax, sweet almond oil and cocoa butter balm that Shortway jokes is good enough to eat.
“Everything I make, I’ve inspected and touched. I know it well by the time it leaves my table. My goal is to make things that are high enough quality, craftsmanship and materials, that if you take care of it you can give that to the next generation.”
Shortway didn’t originally intend to make a business out of his leather crafting. “Technology allows me to do this. If I didn’t have Facebook, Instagram, Etsy and my own web page, I would just be a crazy guy tinkering around in my house,” he said. Now he dares to dream that someday he can devote himself fulltime to Grassroots Leather, and support his family from it. But he’d be doing it regardless. “I’ve got an itch I’ve got to scratch.”