The Art of Working With Leather

Few people start a business in their retirement, but that’s exactly what Sailrite® customer Varoujean Tilbian did. After a lifelong career in photography, graphic design and digital printing, he turned his creative eye toward leatherwork as a way to remember his father, a lifelong leather craftsman. In his retirement he’s busier than ever sewing handmade leather goods, running his own small business, and passing his family’s leather legacy onto his grandson. This is a story of family, fortitude and the power of perseverance.

A Family History of Leathercrafting

The art of leatherworking is ancient and storied. For Varoujean, leather’s significance is woven throughout his family history and played an important role in his upbringing. “I grew up under my father’s tutelage. From the age of 4 until I was 16, every day after school I went to his shop where he taught me everything I now know about leatherwork. Over time, I observed his dexterity and skill, but it never occurred to me that, someday, I would put those skills to use.” Originally from Armenia, both Varoujean’s father and grandfather had leathercrafting businesses. His grandfather had a small shoemaking shop in Western Armenia, which is today known as Turkey. 

Varoujean Tilbian
Varoujean Tilbian

Varoujean’s father, Avedis, eventually settled in Ethiopia where the family experienced both highs and lows but persevered through it all. At 27, Varoujean’s father started making leather shoes and established his own factory where he manufactured handmade shoes for men and women. When the Italian fascist regime infiltrated Ethiopia, the family fled to Somaliland. Once it was safe to return, Avedis opened a leather shoemaking factory where he specialized in high-end women’s footwear. 

When Varoujean was 10, his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. To cover the medical expenses, Avedis sold his business and all his assets. His wife recovered, but the family was completely bankrupt. Not one to give up, Avedis went to a flea market and bought an old, dilapidated English riding saddle. “He took it apart to study how it was made,” Varoujean recalled. “Since it did not require machinery and a big investment, he started making saddles and anything else you can imagine with leather.”

Although Varoujean chose a different career path than his father and grandfather, he remained a hardworking provider for his family. He got into photography at a young age thanks to his love of nature and animals. In Ethiopia, he worked for a printing company in the photo reproduction department to support his parents. Varoujean says his father was not upset that he didn’t follow in his footsteps. “My father and mother were the kind of people that let us choose our own path. My father always said, ‘Learn a skill or a craft. You will never be rich, but you will never be hungry.’”

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Purses, wallets and other leather goods, and a look at Varoujean’s workshop.

Continuing a Legacy

Leathercrafting is more than a hobby or a way to keep busy post-retirement. For Varoujean, working with leather is the bridge that connects him to his father and his childhood. In fact, it seems as if he was always destined to be a leathercrafter — like it was stitched into his DNA. “As I work with leather in my workshop, I feel as if my father is next to me, watching my work and smiling. There are times when I am cutting leather, I look at my hands and fingers and realize they look just like his hands. After all these years, I am delighted to be reconnected with him at this age and period of my life”

His first leather project was to recreate a decades-old gun holster. His father-in-law was a naval aircraft carrier pilot during World War II, flying 28 missions in the Pacific theater. During his missions, he carried a military-issued 38 special pistol with a fitted gun holster. “On his 94th birthday, my wife and I went to celebrate with him. It was on this occasion that I found out how worn-out his beautiful gun holster had become. As I began to work on the holster, I was astonished how — after six decades — I remembered how to work with leather. I remembered the many meaningful hours I spent with my father in his shop.”

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The new gun holster that Varoujean made for his father-in-law’s WWII pistol.

The Search for the Perfect Sewing Machine

To sew beautiful leather goods with care and precision, Varoujean knew he would need a sewing machine that was up to the challenge. On a leatherworker’s online forum, he received advice from other leatherworkers who emphasized the need for a walking foot sewing machine. While on the hunt for the right one, he found the Sailrite website. “With the help of your videos and blogs, I was convinced that the Fabricator® was the right machine. Added to its great functionality, the price was perfect and less than other comparable ones.”

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Varoujean’s Fabricator set up in his leather workshop and ready for some sewing.

His Fabricator Sewing Machine has helped him reinforce the quality and beauty of his handmade leather goods. He uses the machine to sew everything from wallets and belts to tote bags, holsters and more. When asked what he enjoys most about working with leather, he had this to say: “What I love best is that from just a flat hide I create something of beauty, and that gives me great joy.” Varoujean has started teaching his grandson the art of leatherworking. He also goes to local elementary schools to introduce the students to the time-honored trade. 

Over a year and a half later, he’s still happy with his choice of sewing machine. “The Fabricator is an amazing machine. At first, when I had some issues, the calls I made were very helpful, which proved you stand behind your machine with service.” Recently, Varoujean started offering customizable tote bags where shoppers can select their own Sunbrella® fabric, purchased from Sailrite, and then choose their leather trim color and number of pockets.

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A selection of custom Sunbrella tote bags with leather trim.

 After three years on this path, he’s still enjoying his new pursuit and the memories it brings him. Varoujean named his business after his father as a way of honoring him and thanking him for teaching his young son the art of leathercrafting. “Avedis means ‘Good News’ in Armenian,” he explained. “It’s a name traditionally given to boys born on January 6, the day the Three Kings traveled to witness the birth of Jesus and receive the ‘good news.’” Varoujean will always carry a part of his father with him, whether through the leather he works with, the name of his business, or in the blood that runs through his veins. Remembering the past, finding solace and gratitude in the teachings of our fathers — that is good news, indeed.

Custom Cabins: Tales of an Outdoor DIYer

Imagine a quiet evening in the woods — you’re sitting by the campfire, and as the night draws to a close, you cozy up in your very own tent-cabin. For many people, spending time in the wilderness brings joy, tranquility and peace of mind. And while the casual camper might be content with a tent or pop-up camper, the more serious outdoorsman, like Scott Miller, seeks something bigger and better (and vastly more permanent). As both an inventive spirit and an outdoor aficionado based in Northeast Wisconsin, Scott was more than happy to share his journey into the wild with us and explain how Sailrite® could play a part in bringing his creative vision of totally unique cabins to life.

Scott has been in the design and wood fabrication business for over two decades, mostly focusing on heavy timber projects. No stranger to rugged terrain, he’s camped everywhere from upstate New York to Alaska. He even attended the Pat Wolfe School of Log Building in Ontario, Canada, and studied the craft of log and timber frame construction to truly hone in on this discipline and turn it into a viable career. 

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Scott has long been immersed in the outdoors.

He’s always longed to get away and enjoy the wilderness in an effort to recapture the simplicity of Henry David Thoreau’s famous nonfiction novel, “Walden.” The popular true story was written in 1854 and describes Thoreau’s time spent living alone in a cabin at Walden Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts, — a simple life in the solitude of the forest. By the end of the Thoreau’s tale, he feels more at peace with himself and all living things around him, a peace that comes from being one with nature. 

This harmony between both nature and the human mind truly resonated with Scott and was the driving force behind his most popular DIY creation to date. “My appreciation for the outdoors and camping inspired me to design a tent-cabin that could be enjoyed year-round.” As a seasoned craftsman, Scott had already been designing and creating several styles of tent-cabins for himself and felt confident in his abilities. But he also realized that this new style of tent-cabin would require a more streamlined effort if he was to make a successful business out of creating and selling them. 

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Create your own solitude with a totally unique tent-cabin.

With a desire to comingle his ingenuity and craftsmanship, all that Scott needed to take his cabin-making venture to the next level was a dependable, heavy-duty sewing machine capable of tackling the thick canvas found on the tent-cabins. So, like any savvy businessman, he took to the internet to start researching his options. That’s where he stumbled upon Sailrite, took the plunge on his DIY journey, and began his foray into sewing.

“I started sewing in 2015 after purchasing an Ultrafeed® LSZ-1 PREMIUM Sewing Machine. I really like the compact style of the LSZ-1 and its robust power. I learned to sew after watching Sailrite how-to videos and from books I purchased. Then in 2018, I was excited to see the release of the industrial Fabricator® Sewing Machine and bought one immediately.”

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Scott and his trusty Fabricator, ready for action!

Built for the avid backwoodsman (or woman), Scott’s cabins are compact, comfortable lodgings not to be confused with a yurt, a tiny house or any other more livable dwellings. In his own words, these cabins are built for those looking for an authentic American camping experience with a style and amenities similar to those found in the cabins of the 1860s. Scott explained that “I’m mainly interested in the United States market, as the tent-cabin is part of our American history. They were lived in throughout mining camps in the West.” 

As an amalgamation of imagination and traditional techniques, Scott was kind enough to explain the painstaking process that goes into each and every one of his tent-cabins. 

“I design the tent-cabins on a sophisticated CAD (Computer-Aided Design) program used for wood design. I create a 3D model of the tent-cabin and produce shop drawings for fabrication. My son does help me when I need it, which I really appreciate. His review of my CAD drawings and help with the layout work is great. All my tent cabins come as a precut kit. Tent-cabin making is an ‘art form and craft’ and is gradually turning into a business of making tent-cabins for others. I’ve made eight tent-cabins so far and they usually take five to seven weeks to make, depending on the style.”

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Although these tent-cabins come as kits that must be assembled by the customer, a great deal of thought and preparation goes into each one before they’re sent to their new home. And Sailrite is there to help every step of the way! Scott explained that, “I am extremely happy with all the products from Sailrite. I use the 1/2-inch basting tape for sewing the canvas and I also use hole punches, thread and grommets.”

And of course, the Ultrafeed LSZ-1 and Fabricator help to sew the heavy canvas for all the canvas tents, as the roof and walls of the cabins are made of heavy-duty cotton army duck canvas pruchased from Sailrite. The tent-cabin is precut and marked for all screw locations and assembly drawings are included. The customer then erects the wooden tent-cabin frame based on the assembly drawings and, as the final step, attaches the canvas to the frame. 

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Scott’s cabins can be transformed to suit any camper!

“These tent-cabins are not portable, but they’re not entirely permanent either. They’re popular with folks who own acreage or need a cabin for hunting or fishing. They might be set near a lake, along a river, or on a wooded lot. If someone needs a place to write, do art, a nice garden structure, or just to relax while enjoying nature, these tent-cabins are great.”

So what’s next for this environmental entrepreneur? Bolstered by his success in the DIY world, Scott explained to us that he enjoys sewing so much now that he’s even planned to tackle a number of non-cabin-related sewing projects in the future and is always open to new ideas. But for now, it’s fulfilling enough for Scott to connect with nature through his cabin creations. 

“The most rewarding part of my work is providing a product for others to enjoy.”