Thirty Days of Making: Leather jacket

I’m in Day 6 of a short series: Thirty Days of Making. Every day for the next thirty days, I intend to make something, anything, that is in some way connected to school. There won’t always be pictures, and I reserve the right to credit myself for things that I help my kids make. But I’ve decided that I need thirty days of maker success and maker failure under my belt to be a better designer.

I’ve decided that artwork counts, but not writing (unless it’s part of the art, like calligraphy). Digital work counts, but it has to be useful or publishable.

Some days there will be pictures, some days there won’t be. Each blog entry will contain a list of some of the materials and tools, a quick review of the success or failure of the Making, and a reflection on what i think i learned from the endeavor.

Reason for the Project:

As a kid growing up in New York City, I have to admit that I had a certain interest in the punks that were common at the time, in their biker jackets covered with studs and spikes and elaborate painted symbolism.  I didn’t know what any of it meant, but I liked the look quite a bit.  For a number of reasons, a lot of my ability to work today got curtailed, and so I was left fumbling for something to work on at the end of the day.  I was also cleaning out my car.  This biker jacket has been riding around in my car as a hedge against suddenly-changing bad weather, and I thought, I’m going to decorate that — paint that — today.  It’s not related to school, exactly, or even at all.  But I have done quite a bit for school this weekend, between writing memos and calculating grades, and so I’m giving myself permission to work on my own project for a bit.

Process and Results:

I’m a great believer in making small bets.  I didn’t want to paint the whole jacket all in one go. That’s a great way to discover that you’re not such a good painter on leather.  Or that you’re tired, and mistake-prone.  Or that you’re likely to discover that this really doesn’t look very good.  So I decided to start with a bit of trial-and-error in one of the areas that’s easily covered over: the triangle patches under the zippers at the end of the sleeves.

painted leather jacket:THe first one turned out quite well, especially gven that I didn’t know what I was doing, and didn’t have a plan.  I used a combination of an Apollonian Gasket, and one of the zentangle patterns that I’m quite fond of, because it reminds me of glazing patterns on Japanese dishware.  Those arcs running along the left-hand side of the zipper are that Japanese pattern, while the gasket is the system of circles filling the triangle under the zipper.  The dots at the end of the gasket were me getting used to the brush a little bit.

The first one was fairly easy.  I used a much narrower and thinner brush than I usually do, which meant that it held much less paint than I was used to.  So I had to dip my brush more frequently into the paint-well to replenish it.  However, the lack of excess paint was an advantage. Many lines had to be painted twice to really show up.  I got more practice and experience drawing lines, as a result of this.  Learning to control a brush point on a surface other than canvas is good practice, and at the same time I’m glad I didn’t commit to painting a big section of the jacket, or an obvious section, tonight.  These can be covered over fairly easily.

Having done one sleeve end, though, I now felt like I had to do the other one, too.  But I didn’t want them to be symmetrical.  There’d be beauty in that, but also a bit of boredom.  I did decide to use another zentangle pattern, though, one which I also like for its suggestion of overlapping ribs or wrappings.painted leather jacket: This one has a nice flow to it, and again — I chose to do a bit of decoration around the outside, although these were only dots.  For a first effort, I think it was fairly successful.

Reflection on My Learning

One of the teachers of design that I greatly admire is a phenomenal dresser:  he’s decorated many of his clothes, even his school clothes, with beadwork and paint as a way of signaling to the community that he’s out of the ordinary.  He’s an art teacher and a technical design teacher, though, and his skill-set is unique.  As a history teacher I’ve always felt replaceable at some level, but I’m starting to feel that I have a somewhat unique set of skills that isn’t so easily duplicated.  It’s not to say those skills are on a par with his — merely that I feel I can step outside the bounds a bit.  Which is, I think, why I finally gave myself permission to start painting this jacket.  It’s a way of celebrating my growing sense of individuality and openness.

There’s also this discovery of how paint behaves on leather, which is different than on paper or canvas.  You can’t assume that the surface is going to function exactly the same regardless of medium.  Even the paint behaves differently depending on the temperature and humidity of the day.

I think I’ll be sticking to the necktie code that I usually use for school days, though, at least for the time being: blue on Mondays, red on Tuesdays, orange on Wednesdays, purple on Thursdays, and green on Fridays.  The leather jacket can wait.

Reflection on Learning in General:

Geever Tully, in his work with the Tinkering School, has said that it’s always important to let kids decorate their work.  I always thought that was a bit of a cop-out in a STEM-style program.  We’re not out to make beautiful things; we’re out to make functional things that teach the systemic functions of the tools used to build the thing, and to help kids learn the insights of having the built thing in the first place.

But I’m understanding that this isn’t a cop-out.  We live in a world in which many things are manufactured according to the dictates of a single designer or a single design team.  I’m thinking in particular of our iPads and iPhones, which are made of these sleek materials and have a single button and a single logo on them, and are made of amazing materials… and then we, the ordinary consumers, take these beautiful devices and cover them with our own skins or shells of metal and plastic and wood, with our own logos and our own designs on them.  Of course we do. We want these devices to help convey our personality and our vision of the world.

So I think the reflection and discovery for me is that I need to add ordinary decorative supplies to the design lab’s list of tools and materials: paints and brushes and various types of paint pens and markers, so that kids can art-ify their creations. Tully said that it also has another purpose, which is that when they don’t know how to advance their project, they usually stop to decorate it. And once it’s decorated, they have a better idea how to move their project forward.


four of five stars.  A couple of small insights out of a small project, which are immediately useful for the Design Lab:  one, I need to step outside of the carefully-cultivated sartorial shell I’ve lived in for a while; and two, that offering kids to individualize and decorate their work provides valuable thinking time to them for future iterations of their work, and also helps them develop a distinctive style of personal practice and brand as an artist.

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  1. I like this very much. And I would have been been boooooring and made them symmetrical… I like your way better. Pretty cool!

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