Leather Workshop with Locals in Chiang Mai

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Whenever I travel to a new place, I always make an effort to have at least once authentic local experience. I've stayed with a local family in Kandy, Sri Lanka, gotten surf lessons from an Indonesian in Lombok and had tea with a group of college girls in Banmaw, Myanmar.

Whether it was just a short-term activity, or a stay that lasted for days even weeks, it never failed to make a big impression on me. It enriched my experience to know the ways of the locals.

It gives me a little peek into their daily lives, how they think, how they see the world. 

So after a few months of living here in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I decided to do something out of my ordinary routine. I wanted to do something with my hands other than typing on a keyboard. The most reasonable option would be to take a cooking class. But I wanted to experience something entirely different. I wanted to learn to create something that I can take with me when I leave.

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I often see these merchants during the Sunday market selling bags, boots and even leather covered notebooks. I've always wondered how to make them. The designs seemed so intricate and detailed. I've wondered how long it takes to create even one.

Learning to make leather goods sounded like a delightful option.

I did some research online and found out that With Locals was offering a whole day basic creative leather workshop. The description said:

A fun and creative workshop teaching you all there is to know about the basics and techniques with leather! At the end of the workshop you will be able to create a pattern by your own design. In this half day workshop, I will teach you how to make a small bag.

I signed up for that weekend and invited my friend Aaron to join. He's been wanting to know how to make leather goods as well and wants to put them up on their online boutique, New Crop Shop.

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As soon as we got to Happy House leather shop, we knew we were in Leather Heaven! 

Several bags of American Indian design were hanging from the walls. They also had leather sandals, shoes and boots. They even displayed accessories like bracelets, necklaces and wallets. It all smelled so good!
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We saw a long-haired guy wearing a long sleeved printed shirt, leather belt bag and tattered jeans. This is exactly how I imagined a free spirited artist and Thai hippie would look like!

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He introduced himself as our instructor Aum and told us he'd been working with leather for over 10 years. His brother had taught him the trade. He has initially started with bags and then later on learned how to make footwear and accessories. He even showed us the very first bag he's ever made! It was small and the cut and stitching were very uneven. He was laughing at his own work when we started the workshop.

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He allowed us to start with a beginner's mind.

The first thing we learned how to do was create a pattern. In order to avoid making mistakes as well as be able to replicate a design, we have to first create our bag pattern using cardboard. I honestly didn't think it would be too hard. But creating a pattern takes a lot more than just drawing on cardboard and making cutouts. We had to make small holes into the cardboard which would later be used to sew it together. Making holes involved using tools which looked like a small chisel and hammer. We also had to be precise to make sure the pieces of the pattern would fit well together.

Wow, making a small leather bag involved much more work than what I had imagined!

After working on our patterns for a couple of hours, Aum told us we would be working on something else. Aaron and I were a bit disappointed in knowing that we wouldn't be able to make our leather bags that day. But we did understand that creating a pattern was one of the basics we had to learn and perfect first before we could even start working on leather.

Aum taught us to make a leather bracelet next and that got us excited again. We started with making a pattern, choosing the right leather material then finally stitching it together with some tribal cloth. What made this task complicated is the stitching part. We used a dull needle, a little bigger than what you would normally use to sew cloth. Then we took some candle thread and made stitches into the leather through the holes.

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It was a painstaking effort that involved intense concentration and a few numb fingers.

Eventually, we started getting used to the process and it became a lot easier. It felt very zen to do something repetitively. To just shut out all thoughts and focus on a single task. There's no room for daydreaming when you're learning something new.

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We gave it our all and we were rewarded in the process.

At the end of our day, we were able to make 2 different bracelets- one with tribal cloth and another on in the shape of an armband snake with puka shells embedded in the design.

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There were times when I got too tired or the work required too much effort. But Aum was very patient with us all throughout. He often made jokes and encouraged us to keep working.

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I certainly learned that there's more to leather making, or hand crafting in general, than meets the eye. It's easy to go to a provincial market and bargain with an artisan to get something so extraordinarily beautiful and unique for a pitiful sum.

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We often overlook the perfect stitching, the painstakingly etched carving, the detailed bead work. 
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But the next time I will purchase something hand made, I will consider all that. I will remember all the hard work and creativity that the artist has poured into a single piece of art. A day with Aum at the leather workshop made me realize all that.

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It's always a good idea to spend some time with locals. Get to know them better. Learn from them. Ask them what their life is like. Share a bit of your life with them. Let them see the world through you.

That, for me, makes the trip worthwhile.

How to Make this Trip Happen:

- Withlocals.com is is a marketplace connecting travelers from every corner of the world with locals in Asia offering unique travel experiences and home dining opportunities. They believe that every person is good at something and that there’s no greater way to earn a living than by doing something you are passionate about. They hope to enable people, especially those in developing countries, to boost their income by offering their skills and knowledge to travelers.

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- You can either join tours, eat or share experiences with locals of the country you're traveling in! This could range from a dinner at a family’s home to a mountain hike to hidden places, or even a creative leather workshop like what we did.

- If you're traveling to Thailand, there are a lot of tours and experiences that you can do with locals. You can have an organic feast, learn techniques in muay thai and create traditional Thai lanterns.

-By using the with locals website, you're not just enriching your travel experience, you're giving back to the locals as well!

-Special thanks to withlocals.com for arranging our experience. As always, opinions and review are the my own.

*Thank you to Aaron Warner Narrow Arroe of for making the leather bag used in the cover photo and for the images used in this post.

Have you had a unique experience with a local? Do share by commenting below!

Suddenly creative,
Sole Sister Lois

Lois is the Editor-in-Chief of the female travel blog wearesolesisters.com. When she's not having adventures around the globe, she can be found surfing, surfing someone's couch or giving motivational workshops and retreats.

Get a FREE copy of the Sole Sister Guide to Planning an Epic Trip by subscribing to our newsletter. You can also hang out with us online on TwitterFacebook & Instagram

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2 sole trails

  1. ohh lovely! Im into arts and crafts so I guess its wise to add this to my list.. come, july.
    Great adventures, Lois!

  2. Wow! Glad you're also into these creative hobbies Shugah! You have to try leather making, it's super fun! Happy travels!


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