Throwing The First Stitch: Paul Cunningham

The following post is brought to you by Ketel One® Vodka. Our partners are hand-picked by the Design Milk team because they represent the best in design.

06.07.13 | By
Throwing The First Stitch: Paul Cunningham
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Back in February we posted a call for entries for The Modern Craft Project, presented by Ketel One® Vodka in partnership with Wallpaper* magazine. They were looking for modern craftspeople who push the limits of traditional craft, true innovators who could also represent Ketel One’s tradition of making high-quality products. The winners would receive a portion of the Ketel One® Legacy fund to use to refine their skills and take their work to a new level. We are excited to talk to all three U.S. winners about their craft and experience. 


If you grow up in Cooperstown, NY you’ve got to be a sports fan, right? The love of the game is only part of what Paul Cunningham, owner of Leather Head Sports, had growing up… it was another love that would become his passion and eventually his business: a love for leather. Although he grew up playing baseball and worked for the research library of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, but his true calling came after he joined a group that played an early precursor to baseball called town ball. “The ball we played with was similar to a modern baseball, but the stitch pattern was different. This ball was referred to as a lemon peel baseball.” These lemon peel balls were all handmade and not available commercially, and this fascinated Paul. He bought some leather to make one himself and the rest is history.


From lemon balls to baseballs and gloves to footballs, Paul Cunningham’s leather craft is both beautiful and admirable. He’s sold to both average sports enthusiasts to celebrities, and even creates custom orders and special colors such as metallic footballs. We talked to him a bit more about his process and how he plans to use his Ketel One Legacy Prize fund.



How much time does it take to make one football?

We have a pretty streamlined process in our shop. The process of making a football is broken down into several steps. When you add it all up, it takes about 40 minutes to make a football.



What are some of the traditional tools and craft processes you use?

I think most designers and crafts people would be happy to know that many the tools of my trade are simple and common. Rulers, utility knives, cutting pads, scissors, and pencils are used every day. The more specialized tools include cutting dies, which are basically knives bent into the shape of the ball patterns. They’re like cookie cutters. I also use a manual die press. This delivers the uniform pressure to the cutting die to cut the leather. Finally, my most essential tools are my sewing machines. I have one employee who mostly sews. She has her machine, and I have my machine. As my business has grown, I find it harder to sew all day. I am proud that I still have a role in sewing every ball that comes from my shop. I think I would be very unhappy if I had to give up the craftsmanship in order to run the business.

What is the creative process like for you? Besides producing traditional balls, how do you go about innovating?

At the heart of my creative process is the recognition of sports balls as sculptural forms. Sports balls are inherently beautiful shapes. They have become so commercialized and commoditized, that we fail to notice the elegance of their basic shapes and patterns. Reproducing the ball shapes with beautiful leather, it’s easy to appreciate the simple elegance of the ball itself. The other significant aspect of my craft is the exploration of leather and the infinite palette that leather presents. My early inspiration was to produce balls in a wide array of exotic colors and styles of leather. The traditional looking balls took hold first, which allows me to make unusual balls that scratch my creative itch.


How did you find out about Ketel One’s Modern Craft Project and why did you decide to submit your work?

I was actually invited to participate in the media event to kick off the Modern Craft Project. Ketel One and Wallpaper* magazine invited several local craftspeople to the event in New York. I was not specifically asked to enter. However, I did poke around the Internet, where I discovered the entry form. I read it carefully and realized that I was well positioned to submit an entry. It was totally coincidental that I was selected as a finalist.

What was your reaction when you learned that you were one of the winners?

Frankly, I was shocked and thrilled. I had a wide smile glued to my face for the rest of the day. Considering all the amazing artists and craftspeople that I was up against, I certainly didn’t expect to win.

What do you plan to do with your part of the Ketel One Legacy prize fund?

When it comes to sports, my first love is baseball. I have a specific appreciation for baseball gloves. The Ketel One Legacy price will enable me to create cutting dies from some of my baseball glove patterns. Ultimately, I would like the prize to be the catalyst that allows me to make baseballs gloves.



When did you feel like you “made it”?

I think it is presumptuous to say that I’ve “made it”. I feel that I have a long way to go as a manager, and business person. I do feel that the “concept” of my craft is validated commercially. I also feel like my shop represents a level of skill and craftsmanship that sets us apart. However, I’ve only scratched the service of what my business will become.

What are you currently working on at this very moment?

Oh, I’ve got a lot of balls in the air. [Editor’s note: chuckle.] One thing that I’m about to start is a project to re-purpose an authentic Louis Vuitton duffle bag. I will take the bag apart and make some balls from it. The process will be thoroughly documented editorially in an effort to raise awareness of my craft. Foremost though, I’m redesigning my website. The goal is to use it as a springboard to reach a broader audience.


What’s next for you?

About a year ago, I added a basketball to my product line. It has been very well received. For instance, it was selected as a special gift presented to every member of the U.S. Men’s Basketball team that won a Gold Medal at the London Olympics last summer. And earlier this Spring, I actually began work on a soccer ball. Early prototypes are very promising, but the soccer ball launch is still a way off. Ultimately, I am incredibly honored to be a U.S. recipient of the Ketel One Legacy Prize. I will work hard to be worthy of the honor.

Jaime Derringer, Founder + Executive Editor of Design Milk, is a Jersey girl living in SoCal. She dreams about funky, artistic jewelry + having enough free time to enjoy some of her favorite things—running, reading, making music, and drawing.