Learning the Ways of Leather-working with Josie Dybe

by Mia Zarrella

Josie Dybe has a long night ahead of her.
The 28-year-old El Paso, Texas native is a leatherworker based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is working on a project for a local woman whose grandmother, Betty, died in October. For the memorial service, Dybe is making 50 leather bookmarks for each guest to commemorate Betty, who was a known bookworm.

Dybe has less than four days to complete the project.

The dining room of her third-level apartment has turned into a leatherworking studio. Paint- splattered cutting mats, dog collars, carving tools, and works-in-progress are sprawled on her table.

So far, she has 11 bookmarks carved. At 1 1⁄4 inches wide and 6 1⁄2 inches long, the bookmarks feature an engraved B at the top. The B, for Betty, is drawn in Old English-style calligraphy in homage to her British roots.

“They have to dry so that I can paint them tomorrow and then on Thursday I can antique them,” said Dybe, who plans on delivering the bookmarks by Saturday. “You have to be a patient person to be a leatherworker. There’s a lot of steps, but it’s very satisfying.”

Though she has been a leatherworker for six years, it was an unexpected career path inspired by an internship while attending University of California’s Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design. Paco Collar, a leather dog collar company in Berkeley, hired her as an intern in 2010 and then as an employee in 2012.

When Dybe moved to Boston to be with her boyfriend Jacob the next year, Paco kept her on staff designing and carving custom collars remotely. Dybe also started her own business from home, Josie Dybe Designs, and sells her creations on the DIY-retailer site Etsy, as well as through social media and at local art shows.

Dybe is starting her twelfth bookmark, when her tabby cat, Izzy, leaps onto her desk. Dybe momentarily breaks concentration to put him back on the floor.

Taping tracing paper onto the bookmark with blue masking tape, she draws over the B with a pen, imprinting on the leather. The vegetable-tanned leather Dybe buys from Tandy Leather is soft and absorbent because of its natural dyeing and tanning process, making it ideal for carving.

Once there is an imprint, Dybe lays out her steel instruments. She has a swivel knife for cutting, a spoon tool for adding depth, a paisley-textured beveler for creating patterned backgrounds, an

X-ACTO precision cutting knife, a rawhide mallet, and a spray bottle of water to moisten the leather.

A softbox studio light towers over Dybe who is hunched over her desk. A single bookmark lies on the green cutting mat beside a stack of 38 bookmarks soon to go under Dybe’s knife.

She selects the swivel knife, a tool no larger than her index finger, and carves her design. Her steady hand moves the knife gracefully over the elaborate B and then quickly and effortlessly slices the bottom inch of leather into fringes. Her eyes, enhanced with a black winged eyeliner, stare intently at her hand movements. Then she switches to her mallet and beveler to stamp a textured background around the B.

“It’s a very repetitive and meditative process,” she says tapping her mallet against the back of the tool. “It’s very time-consuming depending on how much texture you’re adding.”

The wooden handle of the lightweight, rolled rawhide mallet has bite marks on the end.

“My dog has eaten it several times, but it has survived,” said Dybe. “She jumps up on my table, steals it, and runs off with it.”

Her dog, a black and white-spotted Catahoula named Aloo, sits behind Dybe on a cowhide rug, panting for her attention. She eyes Dybe’s mallet.

Occasionally, Dybe sprays water onto her bookmarks so the leather is easier to tool.
Dybe takes a spoon tool to the B, pressing inside and around the carved letter to create depth.

It’s a full day of carving and drying before she can paint the Bs gold with Cova Color, a water- based acrylic paint. Once, the paint dries, Dybe can antique. Using a wool dauber, a wire with a ball of wool, Dybe rubs a water-based antique gel on the bookmarks. Then, taking one of Jacob’s old lint-free T-shirts, she dabs the leather to give texture.

Though Dybe receives many custom orders like this, as well as requests from Paco Collar, she still finds time to create pieces special to her.

Her cow skull accessories are reminiscent of the cow skull from El Paso that hangs on her living room wall. And her colorful Day of the Dead skull leatherworks pay homage to Mexican culture.

“There’s a lot of Mexican, New Mexico influence. I’m Guatemalan, too, so growing up just having this leather work part of my culture just got interested me in it,” said Dybe.

Then there is the money clip with a carved owl.

“Tecolote,” she said, pointing at the owl on the thin, square wallet. As a child, Dybe’s Uncle Juan would give her a piggy bank with a tecolote on the front whenever she visited him in Guatemala.

“It’s just become a cool symbol for me, and putting it on a money-holder just reminded me of my uncle,” said Dybe.

Her designs, like the bookmarks, often serve as tributes to a person, an animal, or a culture.

By late Friday evening, the 50 bookmarks are antiqued in brown, tan, gold, and red, and they will be dry and ready for delivery Saturday. Right in time for Betty’s memorial service.



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