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Bison Leather

Bison Leather 

Let me lead with my bias; bison leather is amazing!  There, I said it.  Now, why is it amazing?  For starters, bison leather is stronger than cowhide.  However, we all know that cowhide is strong enough to meet almost all of our purposes; after all, it's leather.  The real beauty of bison comes from the grain.

Bison leather likes to shrink and make this aggressive pebbling.

Bison leather likes to shrink and make this aggressive pebbling.

Bison leather is known for its raised pebbling.  Depending on the tannery and the location on the hide of the pebbling, the texture can be large or fine.  Plus, all that pebbling helps to make showcase the life of a wild animal.  The bug bites, scars, and character marks all make sense on bison leather.  

This handbag features a tighter pebble with a smoother look.

This handbag features a tighter pebble with a smoother look.

Some bison can be tanned to minimize the natural shrinking.  These are some of my all-time favorite leathers.  They feature a deep, rich dye and waxy top.  

One last note, not all buffalo leathers are the same.  Notice that I am using the term "bison" for this leather.  There is only one animal that can be called bison.  However, the term buffalo is used for both the bison and the water buffalo.  This might not be a big problem with the exception that water buffalo has been used in commercial leather production for a very long time.  The only way to ensure that your "buffalo" wallet or handbag is "bison" is to order a bison made product.

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How to Care for Leather

Leather Care:

Leather care is often on everyone's mind when they are buying new leather goods.  It would make sense to protect that new investment.  

This Chinook purse, due to its light color, was treated with two coats of Montana Pitch Blend. The wax helps to protect the leather while the oil slightly darkened the leather while making it more rich and supple.

This Chinook purse, due to its light color, was treated with two coats of Montana Pitch Blend. The wax helps to protect the leather while the oil slightly darkened the leather while making it more rich and supple.

Leather Care #1:  Philosophy

This may be the only blog ever that doesn't start leather care with cleaning or protecting.  After all, a new leather handbag is like a new car.  However, these two thoughts diverge slightly because people like the aged, broken in look of leather more than they like a care with a few dents.  In all honesty, leather is a bit more like a new pair of jeans.  Sure, you want to keep them as nice as possible for as long as possible.  However, at some point, the character of your jeans sort of become the jeans.  Therefore, it's best to figure out your leather care philosophy so that you can continue to view this in the proper perspective.

Leather Care #2:  Cleaning

The first rule of cleaning is to do no harm.  But, if you've adopted the philosophy that the character of leather adds to its appeal, then there is little harm that you can do.  I always start dry.  Take a soft brush and lightly remove dirt.  If that doesn't work, start mild and work your way up:  water, water and a little dish soap, and then on to commercial products like Fiebings or Lexol saddle soaps.  Make sure to follow all directions, spot check, and make sure that you are using soap on the type of leather for which it was designed.

The problem with soap, more so than water, is that soaps are made to break up oil.  When oil is broken up, either in your cast-iron skillet or your new leather bag, it is more easily removed.  No soap treatment should go without a conditioning treatment.

Leather Care #3:  Conditioning

For leather, conditioning and protection are really important.  Leather needs its tannin and oil to keep it from rotting and drying out.  There are all sorts of conditions, dressings, and protectors out there.  Basically, anything with an oil is a type of conditioner or dressing.  Anything with a wax is a protector or finish.  I stay away from anything with a dye.  

The oil WILL darken leather.  But again, with the right philosophy, this should be fine in most cases.  Try not to over-saturate, as almost all oils, as an organic product, can promote the growth of bacteria and fungi.  Personally, I like Montana Pitch Blend.  This has three things that work for me.  The first is mink oil.  This adds a suppleness back into even some pretty brittle leather.  The second is that the pitch acts sort of like a tannin.  The third is just enough wax to add a little protection but not build up a huge layer of wax that would need to be stripped away.  You still want the leather to breathe.  

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Top Five Leather Myths

When it comes to leather, and leather workers, there appears to be a lot of myths out there.  Who better to wade through some of those myths than the folks at Beargrass Leather?

Myth 1:  Leather Can't Get Wet

This is the myth that I most commonly hear.  This myth is mostly false.  Almost all leather starts out wet.  The tanning process locks in the preservatives that make the leather last for decades.  This includes one or all of the following:  tannin, oil, and wax.  There are as many differing theories on how to treat leather, and they stem from the same confusion as the "wet" myth.  In essence, if your leather gets wet, let it air-dry and then treat it with a trustworthy conditioner that matches your type of leather.

Myth 2:  All Leather is Created Equal

Leather companies have been playing word games for years.  Some common terms are full-grain, top-grain, authentic leather, split, finished split, and bonded.  In essence, unless it is full-grain, you aren't getting the best possible leather.  For suede, this is slightly different, since there cannot be a full-grain suede in a high quality.  But, that's a different post.

Myth 3:  Leather Workers Tan Their Own Hides

This would be something similar to a dress maker weaving their own fabric.  Most leather comes pre-finished at a tannery.  At this point, leather workers rely on the tannery to provide consistent stock of both veg-tanned and chrome-tanned leathers.

Myth 4:  The Tannery is Not Important

The tannery is incredibly important.  Leather, as a product, can be a tricky proposition.  It uses a natural product derived from animals and has a history of pollution (as well as green sustainability).  This confusion stems from the production of leather.  Top-notch, credible tanneries make all of the difference -- even when it comes to the most natural, vegetable-tanned leathers.  A good tannery like Horween, Wicket and Craig, and S. B. Foot can produce safe, top-of-the-line leathers in America.  

Myth 5:  Vegan or Synthetic Leather is Ethically More Desirable

Not necessarily!  While it may skip the animal product (which mostly uses the "waste" from the food industry), the chemicals used in the process may be just as bad for the environment and user as chrome-tanned leathers.  The most ethical use of leather may be, in my opinion, buying better constructed, longer lasting, timeless leather goods.  This, in turn, means reducing the amount of leather goods needed over the course of one's life.  It would fit under the "reduce" part of the reduce, reuse, recycle philosophy.

These are just some of the myths regarding leather.  Plenty more pop up.  As they do, we will try our best to shed some light.

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Shop Update

The shop on our Beargrass Leather site has been pretty active. We feel that it gives people a navigation point.  Before the shop, the website functioned as a "look book" and wasn't garnering as much traffic.  

Here is Sam, hand-crafting this amazing hair-on-hide handbag right here in Montana!

Here is Sam, hand-crafting this amazing hair-on-hide handbag right here in Montana!

Speaking of traffic, we are looking for all types of collaborations.  Sam and I tend to be the independent, we can get this job done by ourselves types.  However, businesses must collaborate.  And we are hungry for collaborations of all types.  If you are a boutique, fashion blogger, or someone who spotlights products made in the USA, made in Montana, or made by veterans, let us know how we might collaborate.  

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Process Philosophies

Leather workbench for handmade leather handbags in Montana

The leather working process is meticulous.  Each step is important.  One of the keys for us is to change our designs.  Making leather goods that surprise us when finished is paramount.  We focus our energies on products that really fit the bespoke label.  Each hide of leather we get is one-of-a-kind, and the design should reflect that.

American Made Handbag Bespoke Hair-on-hide

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Small Goods

Sometimes (all the time) we end up with "scraps."  And these can be of considerable size.  When we are feeling organized, we break these down into boxes based on the size and type of leather.  For example, there is a "bear wallet" box and a "front-pocket wallet" box.  

We thought that our nights spent at the West Glacier Farmer's Market would be filled with sales of these amazing bear coin purses.  Sometimes we misjudge demand.

We thought that our nights spent at the West Glacier Farmer's Market would be filled with sales of these amazing bear coin purses.  Sometimes we misjudge demand.

We have a bit of a new philosophy regarding scraps.  We will get to the piles when we can.  But our aim is to reduce adding to the scrap bins by finishing a leather hide in its entirety.  Here's an examples.

The Florence tote in an amazing pebbled, full-grain, pull-up bison leather.  How's that for a string of adjectives?

The Florence tote in an amazing pebbled, full-grain, pull-up bison leather.  How's that for a string of adjectives?

This bag took a LOT of leather -- like 8 square feet.  Here are some of the other projects from the hide.

Folklore Bison Ipad Case 2.jpg
Key fobs of the same bison leather.

Key fobs of the same bison leather.

This type of zero-scrap philosophy may keep us from adding to the six boxes of current scraps.  Two lessons can be gleaned.  First, if you need scraps, let us know.  Second, if you have a custom order, it is typically economical to order a key fob, tassel, or even basic wallet or coin purse that match.

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Where is Beargrass Leather?

The Beargrass Leather atelier is in Lakeside, MT.  But, we do not have a physical shop location.  So we are commonly asked where people can find our designs.  And the answer represents the singular problem that we are facing.  The short answer is that we are in Montana and online through our website shop and Etsy.  We are also in some local shops around Kalispell.  However, we are currently seeking more locations.

We are also near Glacier National Park.

We are also near Glacier National Park.

We've created a  "Stockists" page to help people who are trying to locate Beargrass Leather.  The page also helps stores interested in carrying our incredible leather goods to see our goals for stockists.

We know that we want to continue to make hand-made leather goods in Montana.  But, we also know that the two of us can only produce about 150 handbags a year.  So we are selectively trying to form collaborations with singular shops in key cities around the northern Rocky Mountain west:  Missoula, Bozeman, Big Sky, and Jackson.  Ideally, we want to find boutiques that feature classic designs (because while Beargrass Leather has a bit of a rustic look, our designs are grounded in classic styles). Our happiest customers are those who choose our bespoke designs en lieu of the foreign designer item.  

If you want to help us spread the word, we would be appreciative.  If you are a such a boutique in one of these places (or even a similar place not in the mountain west) and are interested in carrying Beargrass Leather, please let us know.  If your a customer who wants to find Beargrass Leather nearby or have an opportunity at something local, please let us know that as well.   

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What's in a name - The 'Hathaway'

The Hathaway Bag by Beargrass Leather   Artisanal Leather Goods  Handmade in the USA

The Hathaway Bag by Beargrass Leather   Artisanal Leather Goods  Handmade in the USA

Well, this blog post was intended for March (Women's History Month) but, it doesn't mean it is any less relevent in April.  Our Hathaway bag was named for one of the trailblazers of Montana History: Maggie Smith Hathaway.  Maggie traveled thousands of miles advocating for women's suffrage.  On November 3, 1914 women received the right to vote.  Only two years later Jeannette Rankin was elected to Congress.  Emma Ingalls and Maggie Smith Hathaway were elected to the House of Representatives.  As I researched Montana's Women's history I found that Maggie racked up a couple of nicknames.  During her time trailblazing for women's suffrage she was called Maggie "Whirlwind" Hathaway.  After she became a legislator she was called "Mrs. Has-her-way" for her persuasive prowess.  She is a woman to remember.  A woman to tell stories about.  So we're honoring her by naming our bag the "Hathaway".  

It's a smart bag for a trailblazer of a woman.  Its made of a gingerbread brown pull-up bison leather that durable and full of character.  An inside pockets can hold your cell or keys or other quick reach moments you don't want sliding around the bottom.  A turn lock closure keeps everything safe and securely shut in.  The top handle is great for a classic look and lower arm/hand carry.  The long crossbody strap clips to two D-rings on the back for over the body/shoulder carrying.  The sides are pinched in with a snap button.  You can easily unsnap and expand.  This bag also has loads of room for all your daily essentials plus space too add some treasures.  Just another beautiful piece of Montana made finery with a name of one of our finest persons.

Indulge in some more history at www.montanawomenshistory.

Newspaper supporting Hathaway's run for office.

Newspaper supporting Hathaway's run for office.

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What's in a Name? The Old Sun

Okay, so if you've been following Beargrass Leather for a while, you know that we live near Glacier National Park (GNP).  It's about 30 miles as the crow flies, but we can see Heaven's Peak and Roger's Peak from our home in Lakeside on a clear day.  For a while, we were collecting every possible GNP map available looking for great names.  Now GNP has one of two types of names:  the best and the worst.  For example, Going to the Sun road is the best name for a road ever!  But, lake St. Mary leaves a little to be desired.   As I was scouring a new map, I found this great moutain -- Old Sun Mountain.  How awesome?  So when I was inspired to create this extremely Native American inspired hobo purse, this was the name that I went with. 

What's great about this purse is all of the detail.  Here are a couple of interesting facts.  First, each feather takes about 45 minutes to create from vegetable tanned leather with watered down acrylic leather paints.  Second, embroidery and leather don't naturally go together.  Wh would have thought?  Since I need to manually perforate each hole in the leather, I had to lay out my design in an arching semi-circle with variable distances from each hole.  It took like two hours just to get my design perfect and transferred to the bag.  But who is counting?

So that is the Old Sun Hobo Purse by Beargrass Leather.  It might tread more towards artwork than everyday purse, but it is really amazing.

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What's in a Name? Lakeside Rambler Edition

As part of our "What's in a Name?" blog postings, let's talk about the Lakeside Rambler.  

The Lakeside Rambler has amazing cream colored, soft full grain leather with firm caramel corners, strap, tassel, and lace.  

This one might be a little bit obvious.  We live in Lakeside, MT, and we like to ramble.  But, when we use verbs for our bags, it is because it inspires us to move.  The Beargrass Leather Duffel called the "Drifter" was one of our favorites.  This is also one of our favorites.  

While we work from our home in Lakeside, we would be happy to meet with anyone passing through.  We can set them up on the kitchen table (but might need thirty minutes notice to clean said table -- what with the kids and all).  Or, there is a great coffee shop and microbrewery in town which offer great settings for a "showing."  So, if you find yourself travelling up the west side of Flathead Lake, keep us in mind.

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What's in a Name?

At Beargrass Leather, sometimes it feels like we are running out of names.  Because each bag is a one-of-a-kind original, we go through a lot of names.  It does help when we can keep one style, think Sadie, and apply variations to that style.  We like to come up with Montana names for our products.  After all, our motto is "inspired by Montana, crafted by hand."  

Let's look at one of my favorite names, the Silver Gate.

This half and half tote is half bison and half cow hair on hide.

This half and half tote is half bison and half cow hair on hide.

When Sam asked what to name this, I thought about the bison and cattle.  Yellowstone has the biggest free roaming bison herd in the west, and it creates quite a stir with those ranchers in Silver Gate.  With nothing but rows of criss-crossed ranch fence between the bison and cows, the name just made sense.  Half bison and half cow with our trademark crossing stitch that reminds us so much of those fence lines  

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Where to Retail

At Beargrass Leather, we have a bit of a conundrum:  how do we retail?  While we mostly handle our own retail, living in a remote part of Montana can present challenges.  For the most part, this isn't a serious problem because of our limited output with only two people hand-stitching our way through leather rolls.  

Wouldn't this look great at your local boutique?

Wouldn't this look great at your local boutique?

While we retail most of our work through Etsy, there is nothing quite like having products in a store.  So, this spring, we will be very carefully selecting a few retail locations for our products.  

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Suspenders!

At Beargrass Leather, we've been making leather suspenders for three years.  It always take a bit of tinkering to get a leather project just right.  Like my minimalist, front-pocket wallet, I feel as though my suspenders are perfect.  

At first, I thought that an all-leather suspenders would be premium.  Then I wore a set.  They worked.  And they were nice.  But they didn't work nice.  They needed elastic.

Here is most of the areas of work in a set of suspenders.  I leave the straps unfinished in order to provide custom sizing.

Here is most of the areas of work in a set of suspenders.  I leave the straps unfinished in order to provide custom sizing.

The picture above gives a good look at what I call the "yoke."  This is the part that holds everything together in the back.  The elastic is tough to find.  There is black elastic available locally in most markets, but it is tough to find good browns, olives, and patterns in a 1" durable elastic.  I have to get this shipped in from a supplier in Turkey.

I don't want the yoke angle to be so severe that it causes the front straps to want to spread too much.  It's also important to remember that some jeans and pants have the two belt loops in the back while others don't.  I can only wear a three strap suspender with this type of jean.

I don't want the yoke angle to be so severe that it causes the front straps to want to spread too much.  It's also important to remember that some jeans and pants have the two belt loops in the back while others don't.  I can only wear a three strap suspender with this type of jean.

This is a great, rustic style elastic to use with this premium Horween Chromexcel leather and antique brass hardware.  Note the absence of a belt.  Don't wear a belt with your suspenders unless you want to be labelled as too cautious.

There's a dapper Dan!

There's a dapper Dan!

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Staying Local -- Bigfork, MT

Sam and I had a rare date night last December in Bigfork, MT.  Along the way, we popped into a few stores and met some great people.  As a result, one may now find our leather bracelets in the Electric Buffalo Gallery.  

And just a few shops down, our bags will become available before Valentine's Day at Persimmon Gallery.  We are thinking that our pink bison purses might make good Valentine's presents.

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Names and the new Axis Bags

This amazing purse utilizes a vertical shape to get the most impact out of a great portion of Axis hair leather. 

We are starting to run thin on great Montana names for our bags.  Plus, when each bag is an original, the names can stack up pretty fast.  More often than not, we call our bags by the shape of the bag and the leather that was used to create it (e.g.  tool bag in mahagony S.B. Foot).  

Here are some amazing bags that Sam crafted over the winter break using Axis leather.  For those unfamiliar with Axis, these are full-grown deer in India that never lose their spots.  Plus, they are not endangered or threatened.  So, if you have no problem with buckskin clothes, bags, or purses, then this leather should pose no moral nor ethical dilemma.  

 

This smaller Axis purse with solid brass hardware is a perfect as an everyday carry purse.  The cross-body strap is adjustable, and the size is just right for the essentials.

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A New New Level of the Sadie -- the Axis

Okay, so it's been a while since there has been a blog post.  Some of that is due to the success of the design and technique in our previous post.  The hair-on-hide Sadie is really popular.  Plus, we've begun mixing in an exotic animal hide -- Axis.  

Axis is a type of adult deer that does not lose its "fallow" or "fawn" spots, even though it is fully grown.  There are several spotted deer around the world.  And the big designers are starting to take notice of the unique pattern.  However, hardly anyone ever works with the actual hide.  Most just print the design onto vinyl or fabric.

The reason that nobody makes an Axis bag is because of the difficulty in sewing hair-on-hide leather.  The hair goes everywhere!  Plus, one would need an additional sewing machine designed for leather and fur/hair.  So, another benefit to hand-sewn leather goods is that our hands are just as capable of sewing regular leather as hair-on-hide leather. 

Each Axis Sadie is fully-lined with premium lining and can have a pocket added.  The lining adds the structure to make the big sit up straight.  The lining is really nice, but it adds a lot of stitching.  Therefore, each purse takes approximately 12 hours to make from start to finish.  The end result is what I call the purse equivalent of a fur coat.

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New level of the Sadie Bag

Well here we go....another Sadie bag made!  This time, it was a custom order very much to our liking; a Hair-on-hide 'Sadie'.  Now I was especially excited for this undertaking.  I had tried to make a very similar bag in hair-on-hide in the past before I came up with the 'Sadie" design.  It would collapse and needed reinforcement.  I ended up lining it with leather that was much thicker than lining leather and make an overpriced product which made a beautiful bag but if I was going to do a bag like that again I needed to purchase lining leather.  So when we were contacted to make a 'Sadie' in Hair-on-hide I knew I would have a chance again.  Ben and I immediately picked out and ordered some liner.  Once it arrived on our doorstep I took it inside and went straight to work cutting it out.  There was a significant amount more stitching on this bag.  And if you know anything about Beargrass Leather, you know we pride ourselves in our hand stitching.  No shortcuts.  No machines.  This was a lot of work, but so rewarding.  I was very pleased with the end result.

As I was putting the final touches on it there was a car sitting across the road that I really wanted to photograph it with.  It was a vintage chocolate brown fiat convertible which seems all to appropriate for our client whom comes from this countries birthplace of automobiles: Michigan.  To my dismay the car left when I wasn't looking.  So I'll just let you imagine this bag sitting on the passenger seat while you drive down highway 93 looking out over Flathead Lake with the wind in your hair.  

 

Sadie Bag in Hair-on-Hide and Chocolate Essex by Beargrass Leather

Sadie Bag in Hair-on-Hide and Chocolate Essex by Beargrass Leather

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Fall Photo Shoot

We had a day of extremely fall like weather.  We grabbed the camera, boxes full of purses and clothes, and went exploring.  Oh yeah, we grabbed some spiced lattes as well.  

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Sadie Dr.'s Bag in Horween's Parisian Blue Tumbled Essex Leather

A few months ago, Sam purchased some Horween Tumbled Essex leather in Parisian Blue.  It is a rich, dark blue leather with a soft feel but plenty of thickness.  Essex leather is used to make some of the really high-end leather bags.  After making the original Sadie bags, Sam applied the tumbled Essex to the style.  The results are stunning.

Sadie Parisian #2.jpg

The short-handled style of the Sadie has three straps.  Here are the two short straps for grabbing and leaving quickly.  A cross-body strap is included, with nickel hardware, that clips to two D-rings sewn into the gusset.  

The strap is adjustable and easy to clip on and off.

The Sadie is short and wide with a large bottom.  The inside of the bag features some bottom support for additional structure and rigidity. There are no pockets, in order to maintain a smooth and svelte look to the exterior, but we are including two accessories:  a glasses case and an envelope wallet with wrist strap. Further matching accessories can be custom made to go with this purse:  key fobs, two-fold wallets, credit card wallets, business card holders, etc...  

Read more about the Sadie in Parisian Blue in our "Featured Goods" page.

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