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.’”

Leather goods
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.”

leather gun holster
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.”

fabricator
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.

sunbrella totes with leather trim
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.

12 thoughts on “The Art of Working With Leather”

  1. Most excellent story; and such a wonderful confirmation of family traditions, generational passing of knowledge and skills, the emotional ties and motivations children have for their ancestors, as well as the honoring of those members in many families who seriously consider the success and well-being of future generations as a primary concern during their own lifetimes. It is certainly a grand inspiration across generations, language barriers, and international boundaries.
    Thanks for sharing it with the rest of us.

  2. So impressed with this guy and this story. Let’s stop filling up our landfills with “fast fashion” and demand the time-tested, durable old skill products made with the obvious quality and pride of these products. I humbly suggest he hire himself a designer and take his father’s legacy to the next level where he can insure benefit to a next generation of craftsmen, community, family…don’t let these skills die out! WOW.

  3. What a beautiful and touching story of this family’s legacy. I am especially pleased that he is not only passing along these skills to his own grandson, but is going to elementary skills to introduce this important skill and artistry to others who would most probably, never be exposed to it.
    Kudos to you, sir!

  4. What a wonderful story. The sewing machine seems huge but I guess that you need something substantial to sew through leather. I hope the grandson finds it as fascinating and as worthwhile as you, and carries on the family tradition. God bless you all.

  5. I had the pleasure of knowing Varoujean and his family when they lived in Ethiopia. Varoujean’s father had a leader shop in the capital city of Addis Ababa. I remember taking our leather-soccer ball for repair when it lost a stich or was thorn out. He did a fantastic job. While in his shop, I watched the talented craftsman create beautiful saddles, handmade shoes, handbags, holsters and all kinds of leather products. After 50 years, it makes me extremely happy to see Varoujean doing what his father did for decades. I also had the pleasure of visiting his studio in 2018. I was very surprised to see how skillful he is, while making leather products. It was just like his father! I was equally impressed to see Ryder working side by side with his grandfather, on weekends and after school. I would not be surprised if Ryder becomes the best leader craftsman in the family. I wish Varoujean and Ryder all the success. I will be making my Christmas shopping for my wife and two daughters from my old friend. Good luck to you, my dear friend.

  6. A beautiful story! A lasting legacy continues. I’m so inspired and humbled by Varoujean’s story. I also enjoyed Gabe Korajian’s comments too — how special! Thank you for sharing.

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