Ceylon Leather Crafts: What we know about genuine leather
How much do you know about your so-called “leather” wallet? Or your fancy leather belt? Or even your “genuine leather” pair of slippers? Do you know what it means to purchase “genuine leather”? It’s likely that we as Sri Lankans are often duped on the regular with price tags and claims of “100% genuine” when we are actually buying something that will start to peel after just a couple of days of use.
This is largely due to the general lack of awareness Sri Lankans tend to have when it comes to leather, a premium product and industry which remains a budding one here in the island, with very few home-grown craftsmen engaged in the trade.
In our search for “good” leather products, we came across Ceylon Leather Crafts founded by Thilina Perera, one of a handful of leather craftsmen in the island and part of an exclusive club of passionate individuals looking to raise the bar on premium leather products while raising awareness about the importance of community, craftsmanship, and entrepreneurship.
Ceylon Leather Crafts
Thilina shared that his own personal entrepreneurship journey started at a very young age, from his Ordinary Level (O/L) times. Having grown up in relative poverty, he shared that he was inclined to make his own way in the world; to pay his way through school and learn the value of independence and skill and the accumulation of wealth.
With the mindset of a businessman egging him on, Thilina shared that he has always had a curious mind and craftsmanship came naturally to him. Being entirely self-taught, he has put in countless man hours into teaching himself the technique and the way of his craft.
While he maintained a regular corporate job with a satisfactory income, Thilina, with his curious mind and belief that nothing is impossible, chose to leave behind stability in favour of trying his hand at a craft that was relatively unheard of, purely out of self-belief that he has what it takes.
“During the time of the Easter bombings, while I myself was not financially affected, I realised that things can be taken away from you at any time. And with the Covid-19 virus spreading the next year, I saw how it affected large businesses and it spurred me on to start something of my own,” said Thilina.
With something akin to kismet, he was drawn to leather and its craft and six months after leaving his stable job, he had some customers and a workstation setup, which were enough to make a living. “I love the feeling of leather, I love the look of it, and the classic vibe of old-school charm,” he said, and so Ceylon Leather Crafts was born.
Leather in Sri Lanka
Coming back to leather in Sri Lanka, being a leather connoisseur, Thilina shared that what you come across in terms of leather products in the Sri Lankan mass market is, to be entirely frank, absolutely terrible. He shared that there really is no leathercraft industry in the island, and the market here as a result is incredibly low quality.
He also dropped an interesting nugget of knowledge about the claims of “genuine leather”, stating that if a Lankan seller is claiming their item is as such, it is probably the worst type of leather you could purchase. He said that anything can be “genuine leather”, but there are layers to leather, stating that what you get as “genuine leather” here is the less durable, cheaper inner layer of the animal skin.
Thilina said that what you should be looking for is full grain leather – this is the outermost layer. However, he noted that what you get in the market as “genuine leather” is the underlayer and it is the worst.
The process of leather crafting is called the tanning process. Thilina shared that there are two methods one can use that results in two types of leather – vegetable-tanned leather and the other being chrome-tanned leather.
“Vegetable” tanning is where one uses natural materials in the tanning process. Vegetable tanning, or veg tan as it’s sometimes called, is one of the oldest methods of tanning known to man. The method has its many advantages, one notable advantage being that it tends to age better, developing a rich character and patina over time – patina being the quality that leather develops over time with use. Vegetable-tanned leather also has that classic leather smell that is quite intoxicating. Thilina shared that due to the natural process, it is also the more environmentally friendly and sustainable option.
In comparison, chrome tanned leather is one of the more common types of tanning and it refers to the chromium used in the tanning process. It’s a popular method of tanning because it’s quicker than vegetable tanning and results in a softer, more pliable leather. Chrome-tanned leathers are typically thinner and not made in very thick “weights”, i.e. thickness of leather.
Thilina shared that considering Sri Lanka’s humidity, heat, and moisture levels, it is advisable to go for veg tan, as the chrome tan surface may be affected by environmental conditions, threatening to crack more easily.
Why build competition when you can build community
The number of leather craftsmen in Sri Lanka are but a handful, and according to Thilina, they are all part of a tight-knit community. “There is no competition between us. Of course, we want to grow and get better, but we only motivate one another and we do not stand in each other’s way,” he said, adding that the community has been looking out for each other. Sharing one another’s tools when the other may be in a bind, and sharing their unique materials with each other, Thilina said that they have decided to join hands in developing the craft in the island.
Thilina is also dedicated to teaching the craft to passionate young students. While he himself does not have a formal education in leather crafting, he has acquired a wealth of knowledge and is dedicated to disseminating it to the best of his ability. He added that he hopes to start his own academy of sorts to educate people on leather, to show people the alternatives available to explore one’s creativity, one’s passions, and most importantly, to create a line of income that has you feeling accomplished.
With a large social media following, Thilina is well on his way to educating the next generation of leather craftsmen on the island. He conducts workshops sporadically for his following and has even developed toolkits for people to begin their leather journey.
He shared that he personally develops a deep emotional connection with each item he makes. They are created with love, and all the reviews he receives are important to him. Perhaps as a businessman, to be so emotionally attached to your product may be a disadvantage, but he shared that he simply cannot help creating that bond because of the level of care and dedication with which he makes each and every item.
With his own journey being such a personal one, he feels that when teaching the craft to those who are learning, it is important for him to share with them that while he may be able to teach them the basics and show them the way, leather is their own journey and they must figure it out for themselves.
Thilina shared that while he hopes to focus a lot of his energy on teaching in the future, he also has plans of expanding his initiative to a broader audience. So far, he has operated on the belief that because what he makes is a 100% Sri Lankan product, it must first be experienced by Sri Lankans; before the world gets to experience it, it should be available to his own people.
However, having grown his business to an extent, he feels it is time to open it to a broader audience. Considering that he is offering a premium product, he believes that he can represent Sri Lanka in a positive light and showcase what Sri Lanka has to offer.
Thilina is also hoping to feature a leather crafts exhibition to further broaden the network of Ceylon leathercrafters and to hopefully develop it into a thriving new industry.
Crafted by Thilina: @craftedbythilina
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