Jan 22

Holiday gifts

That time of the year again and I had planned to make some specific gifts. So I needed some specific leather 😀

All Italian veg-tan finished leather. Some of it is earmarked for a purse I’ve been prototyping, but the matt emerald green was used to make this Corter Leather pattern bucket bag for my sister:

And the ocean blue was used for a small backpack along with some nice suede for a friend in the US:

First time making a strap, that. It’s annoying that I’m still learning stuff quickly – every time I make something like this and look back at it, I see six to ten things I’ve since learned you should do…

Some of the pieces are more rustic though 😀

That one taught me that Americans have very small beer bottles – the pattern came in two sizes and the standard beer bottle size was smaller than this one and only fitted 300ml bottles, not our 330ml ones. I did finish the first one after finding that but all it’s really up to is hot sauce…

I think the most well-received ones went to the niece and nephew though…

My niece (who’s six and going through her pink phase) is quite taken with the bag.

That bag (it’s not fully finished in that photo) was for another friend who’s helped enormously this year.

Gotta say, the hot foil press was really useful in all of these. The press itself wasn’t very spendy – the brass letters set was a bit, but the biggest part of the total cost was a shock – almost a hundred euro to ship the package from Hong Kong and when it arrived, without any advance warning, there was 120 euro in customs, duties, handling fees and so on levied at the door. And the driver couldn’t take a card, we had to call into the head office to sort the bill out. Not very impressive UPS, not impressive at all.

Can’t fault the machine mind you, it’s small, neat, effective. Not up to commercial use obviously, but even for a small batch run it’s pretty nice. It’s a pain swapping out the T-slot holder so you can bolt in the makers mark and other custom stamps, but there’s a stamp holder that you can get that will fit into the T-slot so that should prevent a few more fun burns on the fingers (the nut you have to tighten to hold the stamp is in between two plates that are almost always at 120C….)

Playing with the machine and some of the foils I got was fun 😀

I was also in a secret santa this year with some other engineers. My giftee was a D&D fan who also camps so obviously you’d make up a travel dice tray and dice bag…

Still getting to grips with the foil stamp there 🙁 And in return, someone sent me this beautiful thing:


Bunch of new tools arrived for these – an acrylic pattern for wallet making (well, more so I could see what acrylic patterns looked like), a strap cutter for those bag straps, magnetic bag closures, some fine thread, a few stitching chisels and more rivets in brass and copper. It’s funny how much cheaper tools are for this than they are for woodworking!

Even got a set of dies and moulds to make this lovely little cats-paw. Might be making a few of those for fun.

And bought some more materials – lining leather, some more natural vegtan leather and some more vegan leather (the cork-bonded-to-fabric stuff). I think I have enough materials for six months or so now at the rate I’m going.

The cork fabric stuff is really interesting – they (MB Cork) have done some really neat effects with metallic inlays and dyes.

Still have a few more projects underway, but trying to get as much time walking in the hills as the weather allows…

The tool collection has… grown a bit. In fact I think it’s almost complete. There are some things that I don’t have to hand but they’re more machines than tools. And most of this is cheap knockoff clones from chinese sources rather than actual decent versions and I might change some of the most used ones out over the next few months but for right now I don’t really have a hole in the tool lineup for what I’m doing, which is really nice.

I even found my old schoolbag from primary school (my parents may be hoarders). It’s in dire shape and I hated its harness when I was Calum’s age, but maybe I can rehabilitate it, improve it a bit and Calum might get some use from it if it works…

Dec 21

New material

So back around the start of August, I wanted to buy myself a new notebook because the one I normally carry in my back pocket was exhausted. It was also torn and shredded because that’s a rough pocket for a notebook to live in. I bought yet another A6 sized moleskine lookalike, but I got one in a leather cover because I figured that’d last longer (it’s now December and yes, it’s definitely weathered better than the paper covers would). It showed up in a very fancypants box too.

The thing is though, that cost me a little over €20. And it’s just an A5 size bit of leather with five holes stamped in it and a bit of elastic. That… rankled a little. I could almost definitely make one better than that (with a pen loop no less) for way less, right?

So there are cheap leatherworking kits on Amazon that would be useless for a professional but if you just want to give it a try, they’re grand. And Amazon also sells leather scraps and offcuts in bundles, and they’re always useful for things like elbow and knee patches on clothes as well. And youtube has a metric ton of tutorial videos (I can recommend Corter Leather‘s as a great starting point). So off I went.

Yeah, that’s awful, but it was the first line of stitching I ran in leather, and it was oddly theraputic – just repetitive hand work, no thinking required. Hell of a break at the time, so I kept doing it.

The thread is a polyester one, and you melt the ends to secure the stitching when done, so you use cigarette lighters a bit in this. So one of the easier beginner projects is a cigarette lighter case. This was the first thing I did in leather. Bit of wet molding there as well, which didn’t work as well as it does in better leathers, but it was still useful. Still using it today in fact.

Around about this time, it was my birthday and my parents thought “he has a new hobby, thank feck, don’t have to spend six months thinking up a new gift this year” and so we went here, the Dublin Leather Store and came away with a little over half a cow in vegetable tanned leather (there’s basically two kinds of leather – veg tanned and chrome tanned – and for what I was doing veg tan was better suited). It’s a fun place, very much in the Irish style of “we’ve been doing this for fifty years ‘cos we love it and who cares if we’re not rich, we know our stuff”. Well recommended.

Pictured: A little over half a cow, in flat-pack form.

So September starts and I’ve gotten myself some good needles and some good thread, and I started in on my first real projects – wanted to make a pen case for Mom’s pen and pencil set after one I’d seen on youtube.

Might have been ambitious for a first real project I guess.

But they were nice pens and it came out okay in the end I thought.

I mean, it’s rough. I can see fifty things wrong with it from here. But I got to sit by the window and do something with my hands and let my brain rest, so I called it a success.

I also wanted to make a custom notebook for my brother, which went okayish. It’s just a prototype, I’m going to make another with the lessons learned from this one.

By this point, I’ve picked up a few more tools from cheap aliexpress kits and the like, and I got a cheap toolchest from Halfords to put them in to try to keep things tidy.

The notebook turned out okayish too.

But my design suggestion wasn’t adopted…

I thought it would have done wonders for community policing, but oh well…

Mom sews and is in a sewing circle and around this time they were doing a charity thing where they made up bags of basic sewing tools to send to Syria because refugees there were living in tents with no way to repair clothing or tents. Sounded like a good thing to do so I looked up how you make leather bags and it turns out to be easy enough.

And I started making pouches and things for storing the tools around this point as well.

My brother is left-handed so I made a left-handed notebook (it has a plastic stiffener in it so you can rest your writing hand beside the notebook while writing away from a desk).

Things are starting to get a little neater by this stage, so I got myself a decent craft knife or two.

The finger-ring versions are interesting – they make it really easy to make a vertical cut.

And at the same time, Tandy Leather were having a sale ‘cos they’d been in business for 100 years, so I bought some more cattle…

And got a new makers mark as well.

We’re into October now and mom didn’t have anything to keep her Covid cert in…

Again, getting neater but still not great.

This one was interesting – it’s a Corter Leather pattern, but it’s not leather. That’s cork (the wood) on a fabric backing. Works a lot like leather. Interesting material.

It’s a simple coin purse with a card slot. Bit more ragged looking than the norm that one.

Bought an arbor press around this point to do stamping and cutting and setting rivets and so on. Works really well, wasn’t very spendy. Used that to make a very late birthday gift for a friend (hi Fiona!).

And also made a small gift for another small boss lady:

I was doing a bit of knitting at this point as well, so I made a tool wrap thingy for the needles and such:

That’s probably the biggest and most complex thing I’d made to that point, and as you can see, it’s not *quite* big enough – I still haven’t gotten the judgement right on leaving things a bit larger and trimming back at the end. You have to get over the fear of wasting material for that, not quite there yet. That’s leather lined with canvas and using hemming tape to stop the canvas fraying at the edges so I’m starting to use more things now.

I started this bag at the start of November, with a new makers mark (the one I’d gotten before was punching through the leather, it was really meant for metal I think), and experimenting with dying leather. That bag’s still not finished because I was waiting for something that’s only just arrived. I’ll finish it off soon.

I spent November walking up hills and having socially distanced hot chocolate.

I got the idea from watching hiking videos from Sweden on youtube, and when taking the thermos flask up the hill proved a pain because it leaked, got some cheap camping stuff.

I did make up more tool pouches and a few other small things as well.

And I got a stitching pony. It does help with the stitching though you can’t always use it. That material is flooring vinyl btw, an interior decorating shop just gave me a few metres of offcuts of the stuff. It’s great prototyping material for leather. Cuts and sews like leather, and lets you see if a pattern works before using more expensive leather on it.

A few more cheap toolkits showed up from china and I made pouches for them:

And I splurged on a hot foil press as well because it looked awesome but it wouldn’t show up for almost another month. The lettering showed up early:

Probably the most awkward fiddly project to date was to make a case for some binoculars (took them up hill walking and the belt loop is too low, but I can fix that):

And I finally got round to making my much-easier-than-spending-€20-on-amazon notebook cover…

So yeah, no, spend the €20, it’s cheaper than learning to do it yourself, even if its a lot more satisfying to do it yourself. I mean, it worked for me because I needed something to do with my hands at the time, but it’s just not the most economical way to get a leather notebook cover 😀

Dec 21

Black dog

Been a while since I posted anything here. There’s been a reason.

Thyroid gland
That little git is the thyroid gland. Sits there, wrapped around your trachea, merrily pumping out two hormones that regulate your metabolism, temperature, heart rate and other important stuff. They’re called triiodothyronine and thyroxine and no, I can’t remember those names either but they’re listed as T3 and T4 on the blood test, which is easier. It doesn’t produce them at a set rate – it produces them to order, for the pituitary gland, which dumps a third hormone into the body to communicate how much T3 and T4 should be produced. That one is TSH on the blood tests, for Thyroid Stimulation Hormone, which is a bit more memorable.

Thanks to a genetic gift from my grandparents via my mom and all her sisters, mine doesn’t work. It’s underactive. Hypothyroidism is the official term. Showed up on a random blood test a few years ago when I got a dose of strep throat. My pituitary gland wants a set level of T3 and T4, it pumps out the appropriate level of TSH, but my thyroid takes the day off and doesn’t dispense the T3 and T4 asked for. So the pituitary, like any stereotypical tourist, shouts louder, by dumping even more TSH into the body and eventually the thyroid begrudgingly releases enough T3 and T4 to shut the pituitary up. End result: you feel tired all the time and you put on weight for no reason. Now that might sound like parenthood and middle age, and it kindof is so the symptoms get masked, but the extent is the issue. I was getting eight hours sleep and waking up feeling like I’d been awake and working for a week already. And I’d put on a good twenty pounds that wasn’t shifting even while I was walking for an hour a day. My GP prescribed eltroxin, a synthetic hormone (so yes, I am on hormone replacement therapy), and in a few weeks I didn’t feel like the walking dead anymore.

Here’s the really really shitty part, which my doctor neglected to mention at the time.

About 55% of men who get hypothyroidism also develop clinical depression. As far as I can tell from my idiot’s crash course in neurochemistry, it’s a side effect probably related to the larger amounts of hormones the pituitary is having to release to get T3 and T4 levels up to somewhere near where they need to be. As if it was having to yell at the thyroid and then when it goes to talk normally to the other glands it controls, it doesn’t notice it’s still shouting.

And I lost the coin toss. It’s hard to pin down when it started because it doesn’t just turn on with obvious symptoms, it fades in and out over time, getting worse as time goes on. But looking back now with suspicious hindsight, the first thing I can point to and say “that’s definitely a symptom” would have been around the end of 2015. Things got better around the time we found my thyroid was lazy which was in early 2017, but they got worse again rapidly towards the end of the year, and you can literally look at a graph of my TSH levels in my blood tests and see that they climbed from almost-back-to-normal to way-too-far-into-the-red between mid-2017 and early 2018. And from April 2018 until October 2021, they were never in the normal range again. Maybe my doctor would have upped my eltroxin dose and treated it more aggressively if I’d known to tell him what was going on, but I didn’t know what I was experiencing were symptoms. I was sure everyone else felt that way and I was just being soft and needed to toughen up a bit.

See, here’s the thing. Depression is a mental health issue, and where and when I came from, the phrase “mental health issue” was a polite way of saying “fucking nutter, needs to go back to the Killarney madhouse” (there was a mental asylum in Killarney at the time). It’s not so much that there was a stigma attached to it, so much as that it would be like being an unwed mother in Ireland in the 1950s. Which is probably why a large number of people where I grew up were barely functional alcoholics and why so many others hanged themselves or had “single vehicle collisions” or “swimming accidents” or whatever euphemism the insurance companies would accept on the day so the widows and orphans funds would be released. It was a particularly shitty system.

Adding to that, I don’t have medical confidentiality. I have firearms licences for target shooting, and after the Abbeylara shooting in Ireland a few years ago, we had a Tribunal because that incident had been so spectacularly mismanaged. In that tribunal it was somehow decided that spectacular mismanagement would be best addressed by requiring all firearms owners to be sane. This was to be accomplished by psychologists certifying that firearms licence applicants were sane at the time of application and would continue to be sane for the following three years.
After the psychologists’ professional association had finished laughing and picked themselves up off the floor, they informed the tribunal that that wasn’t how anything worked, and so the tribunal decided that applicants would self-certify that they were sane and healthy on their application form. You do this by ticking a box, in case you’re wondering. You also give full access to your medical records to the Gardai who are then meant to form an opinion as to your mental health from whatever they find. In case you were unaware of the training Gardai receive, it is primarily focussed on crime and law and how to arrest someone who’s giving stabbing you in the neck the old college try. It is rather light on mental health assessment. The end result of which is that very few licence holders wish to speak to medical professionals on anything to do with mental health for fear of losing a licence without reason. All of which rather works against you if you do develop an issue.

On top of the reasons for not talking about it, there’s also the small problem of not recognising it even when staring it straight in the face. See, when Calum was born, I got told a bit about post-partum depression (it’s in the normal prenatal courses these days). What it looked like, what the symptoms were, what diet to have to try to help stave it off, what to do if it showed up (which was just “call the nurse” in case you’re wondering) and so on. Fun fact – depression in men does not present with the same symptoms as post-partum depression, or indeed “regular” depression in women. There are some common symptoms like losing the ability to get much joy from anything and wanting to sleep all the time, but some symptoms seem to be mostly experienced by males and others by females (most of the time – look, I’ve had five months of an idiot’s cliff notes to all of this, for feck’s sake don’t think I know how all this works, I’m just writing this down for therapy here). And some of those symptoms (like wanting to sleep all the time) sound really similar to the physical symptoms of hypothyroidism, just to make it more confusing.

In my case, I had constant overwhelming anxiety about almost everything. I’d spend most days dreading about six different things, all of which I absolutely knew it would be hopeless to try to counteract because they were utterly inevitable and there was no hope that anything would work. We were going to lose the house, our son would never have a normal life, we were all going to die alone, work was going to find out I was an imposter who didn’t know anything, the car was going to shed a wheel while driving on the M50, the revenue was going to audit us and find we had underpaid our taxes six years ago by ten euros and we’d be thrown in jail — you know, all the usual completely sane worries we all have. I lost all real joy in doing things, I’d spend all my time working or in the shed because being around family or friends was exhausting and when I’d try to talk about this to my wife, my chest would seize up and I’d find it physically difficult to breathe (that’s an anxiety attack, I’ve since learned) and I’d panic and couldn’t talk about anything. I’d want to sleep all the time, food just became fuel, and then the frustration and the snappiness would start and I’d wind up not knowing why I felt that way, what was going on or what was coming next and I’d try to go and hide away from people.

And then we had a global pandemic. In case anyone was wondering, having an actual existential threat show up when you’re having issues with depression and anxiety is initially very weirdly comforting. Ever see the Father Ted scene where he has to climb out on the wing of an airplane mid-air to fix something and is rendered completely calm by this because the bad thing he’s always feared is just, well, here, and at least now he’s not dreading its arrival anymore? Yeah, that seemed to actually happen, at least for a month or so. But it doesn’t last, and then the impact of everything is amplified once the initial relief wears off. And then a few months later in January 2021, right as my Eltroxin prescription ran out, Irish cases hit the worst spike of the pandemic so far, and our per capita case rate was for a while the worst in the world. My local GP’s office has a ten foot by fourteen foot windowless waiting room with no ventilation and not every eejit who lives here wears a mask. So I figured, why risk going in for the blood test and the new prescription when the only side effect of not taking the Eltroxin is that I’d be tired, but the side effect of getting exposed to an airborne virus (nobody had yet been vaccinated remember) was possibly dying in an ICU with a tube down your throat. So I’d just wait till the worst passed and sort it out later. Sounded reasonable at the time, since I didn’t know about the other side effects.

So if you’ve been suffering from clinical depression caused by thyroid issues for five years or so, and you’re in a high-stress situation like surviving a global pandemic, and you stop taking your thyroid meds, bad things happen, rapidly. Stuff gets worse – a lot worse – in a hurry. I have all the memories from that time and none of them make sense. It’s like remembering stuff done by a stranger. And the inside of my head got deeply unpleasant to be in. And in the end, I snapped. For no real reason at all, I started shouting at my wife one day in front of Calum, and wasn’t able to stop. Ever been driving on a winter road and hit black ice? Like that, but it’s your mind instead of a car. I ran away and hid and the next day Claire asked me to leave and go to my parents (by this point they were vaccinated).

It took me a few days to get my feet back enough to be able to think straight once I got there. I talked about it with my brother (who has a rather high-stress job and deals with broken people a lot), and I thought “It’s probably nothing, it’s just stress” and I went to talk to a GP about it. And broke down crying in her office three questions into the chat. Which, I should point out, is not particularly normal for me. She explained in small words that idiots could understand that it was not just stress, and that I needed to (a) get back on the eltroxin quickly, and (b) see a therapist and possibly a psychiatrist (therapists can’t prescribe antidepressants in Ireland, only psychiatrists can).

So that’s where I’ve been for six months. My eltroxin dose got doubled (my new GP is also a psychiatrist and he basically walked me through the blood tests I’d done with my old GP and pointed out how things had been bad, started to correct, then gotten worse when my thyroid degraded further) and until my thyroid was corrected I got put on serotonin reuptake inhibiters (that’s anti-depressants for anyone wondering), and every week I get to go into a room with a therapist and talk about deeply private stuff that I rarely want to think about, let alone talk through. But it helps. And I walk a few kilometres a day, and lift some weights if I can’t walk, and I keep my hands busy with knitting and leatherwork. And put all together, it’s effective as a treatment. My blood chemistry is now back to a normal it hasn’t seen in at least five years, my blood pressure is down from 150/110 to its normal 110/80, and I’ve dropped a little over thirty pounds in weight so far over the last two months or so, once the thyroid levels came back up to where they should be. And I don’t constantly feel like there’s several swords hanging over my head all the time, and I’ve started to enjoy things again.

It’s hard to put into words the difference there is between now and six months ago. I can remember what was going on then, but it’s like having a stranger’s memories in your head. They don’t make a lot of sense. And going from being that miserable to being free of it is such a phase change that it’s nearly impossible to convey. So there you go. A few hundred words to explain that I can’t actually explain what’s happened.