Juan of La Portegna on the craft of monogramming leather goods

Interview: Clare Finney

When I started out I was constantly burning myself. Embossing involves a foil printing machine, which uses a combination of heat and pressure to transfer a design onto an item. The metal letter stamps must be heated to around 90C to enable them to transfer the foil onto the leather.

Different colours are transferred at different temperatures. I don’t know why this is, but the gold foil will smudge if the type is too hot, whereas the black can cope with very high temperatures.

The level of pressure you need depends on the letters you use, their size, and how many of them there are. For example, the same pressure you’d need to transfer 10 small letters would be too much for one large one. Some letters—such as A, V and W—don’t take up as much space on the stamp as others. This means, particularly if it is a soft, more spongey product, you have to be careful that the corners of the hot metal don’t also touch the piece.

The secret to the quality of our embossing is the quality of our leather. Every product is handmade in Spain from vegetable-tanned leather of the highest quality. We have seen items three or four years later and the embossing is still completely sealed. I have tried this on other materials, such as cork, and it does not take the colour nearly so well.

It was in the footwear industry that I learnt about monogramming. When I finished my degree in design I did an internship at a shoe manufacturer and learnt the whole process. Part of that was monogramming the tongue with the brand name. It was quite easy. The machines were automatic, so you just pressed a button. And the leather tongue was separate—you gave it to someone to mount on the shoe after embossing it. Here, I apply the pressure manually, and the piece I’m working with is already mounted. I can’t monogram the piece then send it back to Spain to be fitted. It just wouldn’t pay.

I still get quite nervous when a new style of bag or purse comes in and I have to emboss it. Of course, I always test the monogram on a leather scrap first, whatever I’m embossing—but you can’t ‘test’ what it will be like on a £300 handbag. You just have to do it, and hope it works. 

I did have some funny situations in the beginning where customers would want to film me embossing their item on Instagram, and I got so nervous I made a mistake. Like I’d do everything right, but the letters would be upside down. When that happens you just have to smile and get the customer a new one.  

Male sneakers are easier to emboss than female sneakers. The tongue is longer, so I can get it under the machine, whereas with female sneakers the side of the shoe are under the machine too, so to get it level is more of a challenge.

La Portegna