Cowhide Carving
Yu dong
Leather Accessories

Nature breathes vitality into every creature, and in leather this energy remains, in the density, the texture, the scars and the growth pattern. These carry the imprint of life itself. And touching these details you may read experience, a story, something of history sealed within. The cowhide whispers to the designer and the inspired leather artist breathes life back into the hide.

Under the spreading trees of the sunny former French Concession of Shanghai, a group of young graduates set up their studio in a romantic old bungalow. From the moment you enter, you know you have walked into a veritable leather-crafting museum. Leather art works are carefully displayed on the wooden shelves, each piece unique, exquisitely carved and daringly multi-hued. Bai Yudong, an arts graduate, is the designer and instead of choosing cold marble, he opted to carve soft leather. His leather carving method, with its unique style and texture, originates from American cowboy culture. He also gathers inspiration from tattoo, Japanese ukiyo-e and myths and legends, mostly dealing with life and death. Scanning the assorted carved items it is easy to see that the skeletons and the elements of ukiyo-e play a large role. He doesn't think that he is just choosing coolness or non-mainstream for its own sake however. A person can choose to hide their beliefs in their heart, or have them engraved on their body as a tattoo. Yudong wants to make his beliefs incarnate in daily necessities. Cowhide carving is a very complex art with every step requiring utmost concentration and emotional control. From the first cut Yudong thinks, then without hesitation moves to the next incision. Colouring is the same, with the artist patiently outlining, then filling the colour. "Because leather is used for a very long time, the colours will change and this ageing process needs to be considered as well," observes Yudong. "Finally as the piece is sewn together you really feel a work of art is being born. The way you sew and how tightly you stitch it are all key to how the final object is going to look. You have to master the rules before you can break them. A refined product is the outcome of a delicate mind."

They are in the vanguard of a trend moving from tradition to modern style and even though they may become famous, they still want to spend all their time on their carving.  This is why the opened their workshop, Ge Ye, to let more young people become involved and to broadcast their traditional craft to a wider audience.

The first step involves transferring the pattern to the leather.
Before carving begins the leather must be soaked to soften it. After the soak the leather becomes easier to carve.
The small carving knives seem easy to handle but small changes in pressure or angle result in very different effects.
After simply outlining the design, the key part is hammering in the three-dimensional pattern. This is vital to bring the product to life.
After the carving is completed, colouring begins, stroke by stroke. Unique to this process is the technique of using coloured oil which is smeared onto the pattern before being quickly removed with a cloth. Colour is most retained in the gullies and so creates a very three-dimensional effect.
Lastly, depending on the desired finished article, the leather is sewn into a diverse range of products, from wallets and bags to card holders and belts.

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