By Liisa Andreassen
He says he kind of stumbled into it, but now it’s become a full-time career. Sam Stuart, owner of Bar X Custom Leather in Lubbock, Texas, was recovering from a knee injury on his granddad’s couch, when he first started fooling around with some leather-making tools.
“My granddad was a simple cowboy. He built tack and always had tools and stuff laying around. I picked some stuff up just to entertain myself and before you knew it, I had made a belt, a wallet, etc. Friends started asking me to make stuff, and then I started getting calls from people I didn’t even know. It just kind of took off,” Stuart says.
That was about 11 years ago, when he was 19 years old. Eight years ago, he started the business on a part-time basis and then five years ago – made it into a full-time gig.
A Q. and A. with Stuart
Where did you learn the craft?
Pretty much self-taught. I’ve read some books, watched some videos and talked to other artists.
Do you have any employees?
No. Just me. I like it that way.
I understand that you collaborate with your mom, Laurie Killian, on some projects. Tell me about that.
One day I needed something beaded, and my mom is very crafty. I asked her if she could help. When I get an order for custom beadwork, I just let her loose on the project as far as shapes and colors, and then build the item around it. It’s a pretty simple process.
It’s funny. I owed her some money for beadwork she’d done for me and asked her if I could pay her back by making her a purse. She agreed. I’d been wanting to try a different shape and style, incorporating different materials like Pendleton wool. It turned out exactly like I had in mind. She wears it a lot now and gets a lot of compliments. Good advertising.
Where’s your shop?
It’s in Lubbock, Texas. I rent about 1,000 square feet and there’s a store front, too. I don’t get a lot of walk-ins. It’s more of a place for people to come pick stuff up. Mostly, it’s a working shop. I’ve been there about two years.
What are some of your top sellers?
Belts, wallets, shave kits and makeup bags. I also do a lot of chaps. I’m working to build my inventory. I’m finding that people have no problem paying my prices, but they don’t like to wait for a product. Right now, about 75 percent of my business is custom orders.
Where can people find your products?
Most people order through my website, Facebook page or call me.
What sets your products apart from others?
Attention to detail. I pride myself on the construction and finish process.
Where do you get your leather and supplies?
Most of my leather comes from Panhandle Leather in Amarillo, Texas. I also use Hide House in Napa, California.
Who are your primary buyers?
Mainly the rodeo crowd and some show cattle/horse folks.
Do you have a favorite piece that you’ve made?
Probably a pair of chaps I made for a friend of mine who made the NFR finals last year for bull riding. It had cutout inlay and was overly detailed on tooling, but I think the thing that made it my most favorite was that he chose me to make them for him. That meant a lot.
Where do your design inspirations from?
I’m a junkie for looking at stuff on Facebook and Instagram. I look at things and think, ‘I could add this or take this away.’ The customer guides the design, too.
What’s your personal life like? Family? Hobbies?
I’m single with no kids. I’ve rodeoed my whole life, but just took a year off from rodeoing to focus on the business. I also love to golf, and have been renovating a small farm house on a few acres over the past two years to make it my own. I enjoy metal working and also like watching sports.
Plans for the future?
More of the same. I’m hoping to set up more booths this year and to expand my inventory. I may add someone as a paid intern to help in that capacity. Consistency is key. I don’t want to get too big and have multiple locations; it compromises the art.
For more information: http://www.barxleather.com
Mother and Son Team up on Projects Too
Laurie Killian, Sam Shepherd’s mother, grew up around leather. She says when she was a kid, she’d come home from school and find things like rawhide soaking in the bathtub. That’s why she’s so pleased to see another generation of leather workers in the family – and is thrilled to contribute to her son’s thriving business.
Killian says she grew up drawing and just sees patterns and wants to create them. So, when Sam asked her to help with a header, she jumped at the chance to showcase her creativity.
“He showed me what he was looking for and it just came naturally,” she says. “We work well together and it never fails … I’m always in awe of how he puts my beading in a finished ‘frame.’”
Killian gets the majority of her beads from Western Traders in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and says she loves working with bright and bold colors.
“I have a handbag that is pretty much a walking billboard for Sam,” she says. “It’s square with stamping around it, has Pendleton wool and beading, and people always stop and comment on it. That gives me a chance to talk about Sam. He’s a true leather artist – and I’m not just saying that because I’m his mom.”
Killian says it also thrills her to see people at the NFR walking down the catwalk wearing her son’s chaps.
“He gets better with each creation,” she says.
One day, Laurie says, she’d like to start her own beading business. Until then, she’ll continue working with Sam and doing her full-time job at an injection molding plant.
“You never know what the future holds,” she says.