Sue Lowday's 'Round Capsule' leather bag

Sue Lowday

Contemporary Leather and Metal
by Angie Boyer

Traditional hand tools rest on the sturdy wooden work bench, jostling for space with leather hides, paper patterns, design sketches and work in progress. Close by, there are old, classical sewing machines, still in use, but prompting tales of times long gone. All of this in an almost Dickensian setting; stone steps leading to a compact but thriving workspace which, in it’s youth, had been busy with the production of tortoiseshell combs.

The first impressions are that this Grade II listed building, steeped in history in a quiet corner of Sheffield, is a monument to the past. So it may come as a surprise to learn that highly original, contemporary leather and metal work is currently emerging from Sue Lowday’s workshop there.

The two aspects of Sue’s work - leather and metal - sit very comfortably together. Sue gained a BA (Hons) in Silversmithing & Jewellery in the late 1970s, subsequently achieving her MA in Metalwork and Jewellery in 2001. All of which originally led her towards a career as a professional jeweller and silversmith.

“I exhibited for several years at the Goldsmiths’ Fair in London,” she recalls, “but with time, I began to feel that I’d like to set myself a slightly different, more exciting path with my work.”

And so it was, almost by chance, that she diversified into using an entirely different material; leather.           “A colleague had decided to give up working with leather and offered me all her tools,” Sue recalls. “She gave me some basic tuition in how to use them - and that was the beginning, really. Purely through a series of coincidences, I found myself taking a new direction.”

Looking back to her childhood spent in Kingston-upon-Hull, Sue describes “buying bags of leather scraps at the big department store there, to make little purses which I sold to my friends. And in later years, for my degree show, I displayed my jewellery pieces on leather camera bags, so perhaps it’s not so unusual that I’m working with leather now.”

Sue’s work is very distinctive, she has established a style of her own which is readily recognised; exquisite bags, richly coloured and subtly textured; hand crafted belts, some with unique hand painted patterns, others vibrant with colour. All of this provides an ideal foil for her abstract ‘Emotional Vessels’; organic shapes, patinated metal, copper, silver plate, nickel or perhaps brass. In some pieces the metal is creatively combined with polyester threads.

“I only show my metalwork in galleries and exhibitions,” says Sue, which explains why she is perhaps better known in the craft world for her leather work, which she sells at major UK craft events.

“It can seem a little unusual sometimes, although the skills I acquired for silversmithing do actually transfer to leather, to some extent,” she says. “Whilst my leather work is functional - bags and belts - my metal pieces are decorative art. There is a precision in working with metal which is reflected in my leatherwork, and working with hide is not so dissimilar to working with pewter.”

Whatever she is working on, Sue emphasises that it’s important to her “to have something that’s incredibly well made. Being brought up in Yorkshire, I’ve always been taught that things must be made well and made to last!”

Consequently, she uses only the best quality hides, many of which come from Italy. “Italian cowhide is much softer than English hide,” she explains. “I like to use it for my belts, it wears in really nicely and will gradually shape itself to the body.”

Sue shows me how she creates symmetrical patterns on whole hides, methodically brushing on coloured dyes before hand cutting the hide into lengths, the first stage in making her latest range of belts. She has a fascination for texture and on some pieces has used hand tools to create a finely detailed surface pattern.

“Leather does have a texture of its own, though,” she says as she shows me a piece of satin soft ostrich leather with its naturally occurring pattern.

“Carp skin has an interesting texture, whilst coloured shagreen (the skin of a ray) has a finely granulated finish and is often used in bookbinding.”

Sue tells me that there are pieces of her work on permanent display in the Walsall Leather Museum, which prompts another recollection about hides and skins. “A lovely guide at the Museum, who had worked in the leather industry all his life, told me that fish skins were used as condoms back in the olden days!”

Many of her designs have an elegance and style that’s reminiscent of the 1920s and 30s, a period that Sue is especially fond of. “My early work reflected my love of the Art Deco period,” she tells me, “my enjoyment of the German Wiener Werkstätte and Bauhaus movements, as well as British/Irish Modernist designers of the day, like Eileen Gray - not forgetting the amazing Christopher Dresser, whose designs pre-empted Art Deco.”

Much of Sue’s leatherwork has been inspired by reading. “One of the most inspiring books for me has to be the Gothic tones of Gormenghast, the series of books written by Mervyn Peake,” she says. “Certainly my ‘Round Capsule’ bag partly came from images coming to my mind while reading the story, alongside one of the many visits to see the Japanese collections at the V&A, as well as thoughts about the components of blood - my mum had been diagnosed with leukaemia at the time.”

“Tools and techniques are an endless fascination,” she continues, “and with my metalworking skills I’m able to make some of my own. I love the tools of the workshop and take great pleasure in using them. If I see really nice ones in the hardware store or tool shop, I have to buy them - I’m always looking for things I can use, although they may not have been designed for the purpose I put them to.

“Intangible inspirations are important,” she continues. “For example, the textures and colours in my garden, and hiking in Derbyshire’s Peak District, a landscape of many qualities, shapes and colours.

“I have also recently been considering music as a source of inspiration and how it has subliminally affected artists and designers for many years. Would we have had all that ‘60’s spiky furniture without Elvis or Jazz? So I have been thinking about my play list, the tunes that I carry with me, and the music that I play.

“I recently gave a lecture at Lancashire University talking about my work and ideas, I ran the last part of my lecture to some of the music I had been listening to while thinking out my designs for my Emotional Vessels. Music and emotion are very closely linked to one another.”

Earlier this year, Sue’s interests led her working on an exceptional project in Surrey. She explains, “I took a course in Leather Conservation and Restoration with Theo Sturge, one of the best known experts in the field. I so enjoyed his course, learning about gilt leather, that I asked him whether there was any follow up restoration work that I could be involved with.” As a result, she spent four days working with Theo at Clandon Park, a National Trust Property near Guildford.

“It was fascinating, very exact and precise work. Everything we did was in front of the visiting public, restoring chairs in the parlour and a leather topped table in another part of the house. I learnt a lot through putting into practice the skills I’d been taught on the course.”

Still full of enthusiasm for the restoration work she’d only recently completed, Sue talks about her next project, to create a screen to show at Origin this year, incorporating some of her newly gained skills and knowledge.

“The course introduced me to a new set of tools and finishes that I am currently carrying around in my head. I have an idea for a screen and I am playing it out in my mind, setting one or two designs out on paper as the idea develops. I am currently looking at Cubist and Fauvist painters for my inspiration and the trail has so far led me to Arthur Wallis, a Cornish fisherman turned painter.”

Silver leaf embossed onto leather and then lacquered gives a rich, opulent finish to Sue’s new work which, when displayed alongside her contemporary accessories, will create something quite unique.

You can see the results for yourself if you visit one of the events she’ll be showing at soon!

Sue Lowday
T: 0114 2663070

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