A wealth of meticulously honed skills will be on display when the 11 Hermès craftspeople visiting Toronto this coming week settle into the Design Exchange for a Festival des Métiers starting Oct. 2.
Those skills run the gamut from gem setting and silk printing to tie and glove making, engraving and the lesser-known art of linking (weaving silk and knitwear).
Of course, handbag assembly will also be represented, bags being what the 176-year-old house is perhaps best known for today. And rightly so – as a visit to one of Hermès’s workshops revealed recently, it can take anywhere from 15 to 20 hours to complete one bag. Following is a rundown of other, largely obscure details to consider the next time you eyeball a pricey clutch, pouch or tote by the firm.
1. Les Ateliers Hermès is located in Pantin, just beyond Paris’s central ring road. Built in 1992 by RDAI, the firm responsible for all Hermès projects, the 200,000-square-foot building has three floors devoted entirely to the production of handbags.
2. There are 200 artisans working at the Pantin facility and 2,300 across France.
3. Artisans will work on a single bag from start to finish (in typical production scenarios, different people are responsible for different steps). Often, an Hermès artisan will work on multiple bags simultaneously, completing each step on each bag before moving on.
4. There are only two steps not handled by the artisans: the leather cutting (done in a building nearby) and the sewing-machine work.
5. Most of the bags are sewn by hand. Known as saddle stitching, the traditional harness-making technique requires months of training and specific tools to ensure that all stitches are the exact same size and pulled to equal tightness.
6. Before the artisans can push their needles through the leather, they use a comb-like tool, called a grid, whose teeth “bite” the hide or skin. They then use an awl, a thin, diamond-shaped pick, to puncture the leather. Most Hermès bags average nine stitches per inch.
7. A Birkin bag, one of the firm’s most coveted, is constructed from the inside out: It’s secured on a frame while the pieces are hand-stitched, then inverted like a sock. This is obviously easier to do with soft leather than with, say, crocodile.
8. Hermès uses the skin of the porosus (saltwater) crocodile for its bags, mainly because the tiling pattern is the most symmetrical.
9. All hand stitching is done from both sides of the leather with two needles, as if threading figure eights.
10. Artisans use sandpaper to buff and polish a handle’s seam where the raw edges come together. After this comes the dying and waxing, which seal and protect the leather from humidity.
11. Each month, the Pantin atelier also produces 10 to 15 bags with hardware covered in a pavé of diamonds.
The Hermès Festival des Métiers runs Oct. 2 to 6 at the Design Exchange in Toronto (www.dx.org).