Photographs courtesy of Talouha
The craftsmanship that built and defined America for centuries is endangered. Certain artisanal trades — cobbling, silversmithing, and coopering, to name a few — seem better suited for a different era.
And yet there are phenomenally creative, brave, and innovative young entrepreneurs out there determined to make utilitarian things of beauty, the traditional way. The payoff for the eager audience for their wares is that they will be able to enjoy distinctive and thoughtfully made objects for many years. True craftsmanship lasts a lifetime.
When we first encountered Talouha, a small leather goods workshop located in Buffalo, we were enchanted by the gorgeous design, cut, and finish, and we were curious to find out how a Millennial woman began plying such an obscure trade. We sat down with Talouha’s visionary and founder, Christa Santa Maria, to learn more about her inspiration, and her resilient spirit, in the face of so much sameness and mechanization. Please read on for Santa Maria’s thoughts.
Christa Santa Maria
NEW YORK MAKERS: When did you become interested in leatherworking?
CHRISTA SANTA MARIA: My mother taught me to sew when I was little, so I’ve sewn my whole life. The first time I tried to sew a leather bag was about 3 years ago. I had a tote that I was completely in love with and I wanted to see if I could make something similar. I always loved designing and making things with my hands, and it had been a while since I’d made anything, so I got swept up in it pretty quickly and just threw myself into it.
NYM: Did you train or take classes to become a leatherworker?
CSM: I don’t have any formal training in leatherworking. I learned by trial and error, reading a lot, and talking to other leather workers who were really generous with their knowledge. When I started out I was hand stitching everything because I didn’t have an industrial sewing machine. My original intention was to hand stitch everything, but it became apparent pretty quickly that it wouldn’t be viable for a business.
NYM: Can you describe your process as it stands now?
CSM: I usually draw out a pattern on paper and make an item from that first. From there I take a photo of the pattern and trace it in Adobe Illustrator so I have a vector image to work from. Then I go in and make changes on that, whether it’s just cleaning it up, or refining the curves, or altering the proportions.
NYM: How do you choose where you source the leather and dyes?
CSM: All the leather I use comes from two of the last remaining vegetable tanneries in the US, both in operation for over 100 years. Vegetable tanning is an ancient and eco-friendly process that uses tree bark and vegetable tannins to produce leather from hides. That’s where leather gets its distinctive smell. Vegetable tanning was the primary tanning process until the late 19th century, when chromium tanning was developed. By the 1970’s something like 80 to 90% of the leather produced in the world was chromium tanned. Chromium tanning is faster and cheaper, but the process releases heavy metals, chemicals, and toxins into the water supply. And in terms of beauty there’s no comparison. Vegetable tanned leather develops a beautiful patina over time and just gets better with age and with use.
NYM: Where do you work and how long does it take you to make a bag?
CSM: I have a workspace in my home. Some of the larger or more complex bags take up to 6 hours to make. I have standard patterns that I use or will tweak and make variations on. But a lot of the joy and gratification for me is designing something new and figuring out how to make it look like the idea I have in my mind, that can take a lot of time, and sometimes 3 or 4 or more tries, before it gets there.
NYM: How long does one of your bags last?
CSM: I work with the intention of making heirloom quality items. I’ll always repair anything that I’ve made. I use all solid brass fittings and vegetable tanned leather, which has incredible longevity and durability. I also incorporate a lot of hand stitching, to reinforce edges and strengthen areas of tension. Everyone is becoming more conscious of sustainability and, I think, moving away from disposable goods to buying fewer things that last longer. It’s nice to see customers that love their bags, but the best thing for me is seeing bags after years of daily use and how beautiful the leather has become.
NYM: Do you have any historical periods or regional styles that inspire your work?
CSM: I love Bonnie Cashin’s Coach bags from the 60’s and 70’s. She has these really clean, minimal, classic designs, but they’re very distinctive. It seems like an idea of luxury as craftsmanship and durability.
NYM: How has the pandemic changed what you do at work, and has it changed your perspective at all on how you spend your time personally and at work?
CSM: This year has been difficult in a lot of ways. For makers like myself, most of the retail shops we sell in have/had been closed temporarily, at best, and most of the festivals and markets we sell at have been canceled for the foreseeable future. I was accepted to the Smithsonian Craft Show this year, which was a huge deal for me, a dream, and that’s on hold for the moment. But with everything going on it’s hard to go very far without thinking about how much other people have lost. So it’s been a time to slow down, pay attention, and listen.
Slowing down and listening, making more conscientious choices that take long-term as well as short-term consequences into consideration? Sounds like a beautiful pattern for resilient making and living...