Meet the former mechanic now a leather artisan craftsman at Sheffield's Portland Works

Some journeys into crafting are born out of necessity.

Former mechanic Kevin Wilebore in his small workshop at Portland Works. (Tony Johnson).
Former mechanic Kevin Wilebore in his small workshop at Portland Works. (Tony Johnson).

“I was restoring a Lambretta scooter and it needed a seat cover so I thought I would make one,” says Kevin Wilebore who makes handmade leather goods at his studio in Sheffield’s Portland Works.

“I went and found a tannery in Chesterfield, got some leather, watched a load of YouTube videos and read some books and here I am four years later.”

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Wilebore, originally from the North-East, had no real desires or aspirations to enter the world of leather but he now makes a variety of goods such as belts, wallets, knife sheaths and shotgun slips, though he is somewhat modest about his skills in his newfound profession.

Kevin busy hand-stitching. (Tony Johnson).

“I didn’t have a clue what I was doing when I first started but you only need basic skills to do leather work,” he says. “I’m not dumbing down the craft but after you learn the basics and the stitching techniques – and I’m used to using hand tools anyway – it means I sort of just drifted into it. If you learn the basics and learn the right steps, you’re just limited by your own imagination.”

Initially the plan was to make more scooter seats but that soon changed. “I got side-tracked by everything else,” he says. “People asked me to make belts or wallets or bags. It took me away from my original idea of what I wanted to do, so now I’ve found myself in a situation where I’m doing bespoke custom-made items – one-off jobs after the other.”

Wilebore left his career as a mechanic to become a stay-at-home father and was doing some casual work when he started toying with making leather goods at home. “I was working on a cutting mat on my ironing board in the dining room,” he recalls. “I was working for a builder doing a job in a woman’s house decorating and it popped up on my Facebook feed that there was a place coming up for rent at Portland Works. I’d been thinking about expanding out of the dining room so I just rang up, had a look, and then that was it.”

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A leather wallet with the stamp he authenticates his work. (Tony Johnson).

Portland Works is famous for being the birthplace of stainless steel cutlery manufacturing in Sheffield. Built in 1879, it is one of the last remaining working examples of a purpose-built metal trades factory.

Following a half-century of neglect, the building was purchased in 2013 by a social enterprise comprising more than 500 community shareholders. The Grade II-listed building now houses 30 tenants, varying from guitar makers to knife manufacturers.

“The rent of this place is super low as it’s aimed at start-up companies to allow them to build and grow,” Wilebore says.

“It’s the only way I could have ever done this. Portland Works is fantastic. Literally within the first week I moved in, the other guys were coming over to see me and asking if I wanted to collaborate – it was brilliant. It’s a very supportive place and I’ve found that with a lot of companies in Sheffield. Everyone seems to be really up for this new resurgence of handmade small craft businesses.”

Wilebore has found himself in an unexpected position. Not only is he at the helm of an entirely new profession, he has done it all from word of mouth. “I didn’t have business cards and I still haven’t got a website,” he says.

“It’s all just been word of mouth. A couple of guys asked me for a seat so I started making seats and someone else asked if I could make a belt, so I started making belts and wallets, and it just went from there. The only advertising I ever do is just a Facebook page. Although Portland Works are fantastic in that respect. They do push the tenants, so I’ve had a lot of help from them.”

Business has been going at such a speed that Wilebore has already had to upgrade his studio space. “When I first started, everything was hand tools and I had one bench,” he says. “Within a year I had to expand and invest in a huge stitcher and a press, so I can just rattle through big orders now.”

He is also about to launch a range of his own items to sell, alongside his bespoke orders. “I’m trying to develop a product line that I can just make to feed the website that is being built,” he adds. “That’s going to be the bulk of business, which will be belts, laptop bags, and wallets.”

Given Sheffield’s rich history and reputation in the world of steel, Wilebore has already found that he is working with the metal, so that Sheffield steel can be wrapped in Sheffield-made leather goods. “My first big contract was with the Ernest Wright scissor company,” he says.

“They sought me out because they wanted a Sheffield-based leather worker to make their pouches. So that was my first big contract that got me going and that was because they looked for me because I was local.”

The high quality of Wilebore’s handmade work means he has to explain the craft that goes into it sometimes. “The people that come here sometimes on open days have commented that you can get a belt like one I make on the market for £10,” he says.

“And you’ve got to educate them. The piece of leather that I use takes 14 months to tan and it’s tanned with oak bark leather, the only place in the country that still does that. I make my own belt buckles too – l guarantee that belt for life. You buy a belt on the market and you probably buy it again next year. This will last you forever. You’ve got to do a bit of educating with some people but other people do actively seek you out because it’s made with care.”

The variety of the work is also something that keeps Wilebore invested. “I don’t get chance to get bored because somebody will email or ring up with a request,” he says.

That said, he has learned that some items are not worth his time. “I used to take on anything but I’ve learned certain things are too difficult to do and I try to keep it within a certain cost. Someone asked me to do a handbag but it takes so much time. Because I do things by hand, it becomes extremely expensive and that person could go get a designer handbag from Gucci that is probably the same price.”

There is also an environmental aspect to the work that Wilebore takes a lot from. “Leather work is the ultimate recycling story,” he says. “It’s a by-product of the food industry and it’s been estimated that we divert something like two million tonnes a year from going into landfill by using it, so it’s a fantastic success story in that respect.”

Despite business booming and demand being plentiful, Wilebore is quite happy to keep his operation modest. “I don’t think I could cope with somebody else working here,” he says. “Also, I’m still daddy day care and I do school runs and stuff like that – my hours are based around school.”

Four years on from watching those YouTube videos while trying to make a new scooter seat, Wilebore is as surprised as anyone with his trajectory. “If someone would have said four years ago you’re going you’ll be in the leather craft business, I would have probably laughed at them,” he says.

“But I really enjoy it. It’s really satisfying knowing when you make something that it’ll last forever. These are heirloom items.”

For more information go to https://www.portlandworks.co.uk/kevin-wilebore-keeping-traditional-crafts-alive-at-portland-works/