Meet Nick Pennington, the friendly face behind Sugarhouse Leather Goods based here in Milwaukee, WI. Nick picked up leather good crafting as a creative outlet inspired to take the creation of leather goods back to a traditional artisan approach. Rather than relying on the precision of machines, Sugarhouse Leather products are hand-cut and hand-stitched, yielding subtle imperfections that make each piece unique. He makes leather goods ranging from wrist cuffs to journals and bar accessories all for sale at Olson House. Read about his process and favorite thing to do in Milwaukee in this feature!
Olson House: What sparked your interest in working with leather goods?
Nick: I had always been a fan of leather goods, so the general interest was there. Add to that an enjoyment for working with my hands, and the next step was obvious – start making stuff myself! Other people liked what I made and wanted to buy them, so basically this all just stemmed from that.
Olson House: What was the very first piece you made?
Nick: The first thing I (tried) to make was a disaster of a business card holder. I figured that would be a simple place to start. What I ended up with was a quick lesson in the importance of precision – two rectangles sewn together sounds fairly straightforward, but two not-so-matching rectangles definitely doesn’t work.
Olson House: Where do you source your leather from?
Nick: I try to source locally where I can. Currently, some of my leather comes from Seidel Tanning in Milwaukee, and some comes from Horween Leather in Chicago.
Olson House: What are the most challenging pieces to make?
Nick: None of my products are overly complex to make them challenging, necessarily – the most effort tends to come in the form of sore hands. The new tote bags require a tight grip while sewing small corners with thick leather, as well as a good deal of elbow grease to turn the entire bag right-side-out at the end. These definitely give me a workout.
Olson House: What is the general process of crafting a leather good? What tools are needed? How long does each piece take to complete?
Nick: First, a lot of time is devoted to developing templates for each product. I might make anywhere from a few to a dozen or more different prototypes to get the size and design just right, and from that comes the final template that will be used to trace and cut the different pieces of leather that will go into each piece. Leather comes as hides (the entire cow skin) or sides (half of a hide), so the beginning is kind of like a puzzle, laying out templates and figuring out what to cut out where, and how to maximize the material while minimizing waste. From there, pieces are glued, sewn, and riveted, the edges finished, and any details added. The tools are surprisingly basic – mostly I use a blade, hammer, a variety of hole punches, a hefty sewing machine, and a rivet setting tool. Each piece takes a different amount of time, with some of the smaller and simpler items going pretty quickly, and larger items like tote bags taking a few hours or more.
Olson House: What is your favorite or most memorable piece you have made?
Nick: One of my favorites was an Ipad case and journal combo that I made for myself. It was fairly advanced with embedded magnets that allowed quick release of the Ipad. The amount I had to invest in time and materials made it impractical to offer for sale, but it was a really cool one-off project.
Olson House: Anything new you want to try this year related to your craft?
Nick: Lately, I’ve been working on expanding my line to create a little more variety in size, target customer, price point, and style, so I’ll mostly be continuing toward that end in the coming year.
Olson House: What are your favorite things to do in Milwaukee?
Nick: There are of course many, but a top pick of mine is beer garden season – especially in the fall. My favorite is probably Hubbard Park. The beer selection is alright, but the setting is great – and it’s just down the street from my house.
Thank you so much for giving us more of an inside scoop, Nick! We are big fans of your simple, functional leather goods and can't wait to see what your creative mind comes up with next.