Derek Shaw is engaged in a constant battle between perfection and authenticity. Under the brand Waskerd—that’s his name spelled backwards, minus a couple letters—he makes leather goods by hand, tight-stitching pieces of full-grain leather with waxed thread. His Manayunk living room looks at first glance like the overenthusiastic clutter of a hobbyist: scraps of leather, worn tools, errant scraps of paper. But the finished products—wallets, bags and other accessories—are clean, geometric pieces in rich earth tones, their smooth surfaces and rough edges boasting an undeniable tactile quality.
His tools are solid and worn. Some of them are handmade, like the long, purple, wooden implement he uses to tie knots. Then there’s the arbor press on the floor. He has conflicted feelings about the arbor press.
Shaw wants to prove that his wallets didn’t come out of a factory, while at the same time attaining the standard of uniformity and quality that consumers have come to expect after a lifetime of factory goods. That struggle is something many craftspeople battle with. Shaw’s leatherwork techniques are identical to what would have been done centuries ago—but the end result has to pass a modern consumer’s scrutiny.
Which is why the arbor press makes him visibly uncomfortable. It’s a heavy piece of cast-iron equipment that looks like it came from somewhere in the middle of the last century. When it became clear that cutting each individual piece of hide and punching hundred of holes at a time took far too long and put too much strain on his hand, he found the arbor press on Craiglist. He’s modified the press so he can put a metal cutout of the wallet pattern underneath it. Each cutout is made from a piece of leather Shaw shaped the old-fashioned way, cutting it by hand and punching each of the holes for the stitches. He pulls the handle on the arbor press, the leather is pressed into the cutout, and the whole piece comes out more or less perfect—though he does have to punch a few more holes that didn’t quite make it.
To my eyes, a craftsman using an antiquated, hand-operated mechanical press instead of a smaller tool is no different from using scissors instead of a knife; it’s a machine, yes, but a relatively primitive one. This is still a guy in his living room, not an automated factory. Even so, it still doesn’t feel quite the same to Shaw. “Because I put so much emphasis on all handmade, all handmade, all handmade,” he says, “when I made this small jump to using the cutouts, it took me a while to feel okay about it.”
He asks to see my wallet so he can demonstrate which of the Waskerd models would fit my day-to-day use. I’m almost embarrassed to pull mine out. The leather has been buffed and polished to an almost plastic consistency, and it’s sewn with the microscopic stitches only a machine and can provide. It’s an unusual wallet—it’s large and bright red, so I can find it easily if I misplace it—but it’s not unique. I purchased it from a discount website with almost no human interaction, and just the other day, I saw a man with the exact same wallet fish out some dollar bills for the trolley. As striking as that candy-colored leather is, there are thousands just like it filling the pockets and purses of people who crave character in the things they use every day but settle for mass-produced quirkiness.
The quality and character of Shaw’s work makes me feel defensive, as if I’ve settled for less. I don’t want him to replace the wallet I own; I ask him to make a smaller one, like he uses. Shaw’s personal wallet displays Waskerd’s rough edges and meticulous stitching, but it also bears the signs of three years of wear, its red leather worn to an even richer shade. He revels in its patina; he’s almost as proud of how it’s aged as of how it was made. It still shows the imperfections of the original animal hide; its realness makes me covetous. His fingers are what add the luxury, their skill giving weight to these small rectangles.
But it comes at a price. Shaw shows me over and over how the stitching needs to be painstakingly uniform, even in the “W” logo in the corner of the wallet. Part of this perfectionism is practical: Tighter stitches are stronger stitches. But another part is his obsession. In our current lexicon, “handmade” is often synonymous with “shoddy.” Shaw wants to reach back to when something handmade lasted your entire life. And that means the imperfections he admires in his raw materials cannot extend to his work. A rigid standard must be upheld.
That’s why the arbor press is both his salvation and an irritant. It allows each cut of leather to be the best possible. But it’s also a reminder that for Shaw to achieve the levels of quality and production he desires, he can’t rely on his hands alone.
More info: waskerd.com.
Calendar: March 25-April 1
PW's 2015 Philly Spring Guide