By Gene Fowler
When Philadelphia leather crafter Heather Holiday needed to choose a name for her company that produces handmade bags and men’s, women’s and children’s shoes, she reached back into her own childhood. “I grew up in Maryland,” Heather explains, “and we had relatives in Pennsylvania. So every time we would go visit them, my brother and I would play a game about crossing the state line, which is also the famous Mason Dixon Line.”
That deep personal meaning and sense of place is also imbued in her product names, which are mostly the names of streets she and her family have lived on and where she began producing various handmade items. Founding Mason Dixon Made only three short years ago, Heather has already established a standard of one-to-one, personal communication with her customers that echoes the timeless, old-school traditions of folks who made things by hand in days long gone.
It’s always interesting to learn how leather artisans with thriving, one-of-a-kind businesses got started, and Heather’s Mason Dixon Made story is no exception. “In a way,” she says, “I started Mason Dixon simply because I love making things. What I really love is the deeply authentic connection that comes from shaping raw materials into something that’s both useful and beautiful.”
First taught to sew by her husband’s cousin, Heather got hooked on sewing fabrics in her early 20s; for a time she operated an Etsy business called Barely Measured, selling cloth bags and accessories. Her first experience working with leather came a few years later, when she took a learn-as-you-go job as an upholsterer with a high-end custom furniture maker. “I loved the raw intensity of working with your hands that way. It was a mode of making things that challenged me in a different way than sewing fabric. I learned from some master practitioners of hand-skills that are slowly disappearing due to cheaper mass production.”
Before long, Heather was ready to try her own hand at making shoes, or in this case, leather baby booties for her infant daughter Charlotte. “I had a piece of ostrich leather that I had been hoarding,” she recalls with a chuckle. “I’d been given a gift certificate to Mood Designer Fabrics, the store in New York made famous by TV’s Project Runway. And I was just star struck in there, wandering around for half a day until I found a small nook of leathers and bought the ostrich leather.”
She carefully measured the baby’s feet while she napped, consulted some how-to videos on YouTube, and shaped the ostrich leather. “Sewing the leather nearly broke my little home sewing machine, but Charlotte awoke to new, ostrich leather booties.” When other moms and dads responded to the booties on the playground and elsewhere around town, Heather realized there was a market for handmade footwear for kids and Mason Dixon Made was born.
Her Eyre Baby Bootie is named for the street in Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood where Mason Dixon began and comes in unisex sizes for babies up to 18 months old. Suede versions of the Eyre Baby Bootie come in these colors – grapefruit, cocoa, stone, blush and stone, and blush and ocean. Hand-cut leather laces and a hidden elastic closure keep the booties on active little feet. Customized versions of the Eyre are available in a wider selection of leathers.
Heather describes the Frankford Boot as Mason Dixon’s flagship product, a boot that “uniquely blends the style and functionality of the classic desert boot and derby boot.” The men’s and women’s Frankford each come in vintage black, red maple, and saddle colors; suede versions of the Frankford are available in cocoa and distressed oak shades. But customers really love the individuality of 20 color choices for the waxed cotton laces, including such striking hues as cerulean, fuchsia, fire orange and hot pink.
Women can go “blingy” and men can go “funky” with their “Franks” by selecting versions of the flagship footwear in fine Italian leathers embossed with metallic designs and treatments. “Metallic leather is really fun to work with,” says Heather. “It’s pretty resilient, too, meant to take a beating.” Custom versions of the Frankford combine both metallic and traditional leathers and suedes for a look that, as Heather says, presents “the perfect balance of understated and bold.”
Traditionally, Mason Dixon has also offered a Mini-Frank version of the Frankford for kids with a crepe rubber sole. But the supplier of the genuine plantation crepe rubber that Heather uses on the soles of her Mini-Franks has closed down, and she has not yet found another crepe rubber that meets her standards. “Many people refuse to work with it,” she adds, “because the crepe rubber requires a combination of really horrible glues.” So, at present, the Mini-Franks come with natural rubber soles.
Mason Dixon currently offers eight different bags, from the Explorer Pouch to the York Street Clutch and the Mercer Everyday Tote to the Thompson Luxe Tote. A “simple crossbody,” the adaptable Explorer is intended for both kids “on all their treasure-hunting adventures” and for adults’ to carry their essentials “from the coffee shop or playground to Piccadilly Circus or Broadway.” All Mason Dixon bags are available in a selection of intriguing colors; the York Street Clutch, for example, comes in vintage black, cream, red maple, whiskey and feline, while the Thompson is in onyx.
Back when Heather was producing cloth bags for her early venture Barely Measured, she became so adept at sewing fabric that she even started teaching sewing classes. But leather presented new and invigorating challenges. “I loved from the start how leather is both so forgiving and not, at the same time,” she says. “And I’m mostly self-taught, so I often don’t do things the traditional way. Sometimes I’ll be talking to another leather artist, and they’ll kind of pause and go, ‘You do what?’ But I think that just makes my products more unique, in the same way that each piece of leather is unique. You learn when you work with leather by hand that once it’s gone you’ll never see a piece of leather like that again.”
Heather sources her leather from long-established American companies like Horween Leather of Chicago and the Hide House in Napa, California. “And all my veg tan soling comes from Milton Sokol in Queens,” she adds, confirming what one hears time and time again about the extended family of the leather community. Until he died in March, legendary Wall Street shoe repairman and cobbler Minas Polychronakis served as a mentor to Heather.
Polychronakis arrived in the U.S. from his native Crete in 1969. The 28-year-old immigrant had heard that America needed shoemakers and other craftsmen. When he first hit New York, he had no money, didn’t know anyone and didn’t speak English. But he had an American dream of opening a Big Apple shoe repair shop. And after saving $1,000 from a dishwashing job, Minas made that dream come true.
By 1977, the shop was located in New York’s World Trade Center. Polychronakis survived the building’s collapse on September 11th and eventually opened two shops near Freedom Tower. A shoe repair receipt for a pair dropped off by a customer on the morning that the planes flew into the Trade Center is now on display at the 9/11 Memorial. “He was an amazing man,” says Heather. “Today his children run the shops, and they stitch the outsoles on my adult boots.”
I’d say it’s a safe bet that, among the many things Minas surely passed on to Heather and countless others, he helped foster her appreciation of the value of a shoe or boot made by hand with loving care. “I like to think of my products as investments,” she explains. “Especially with the kids’ shoes and booties—they are often passed down from one sibling to another. The record so far is three kids in one family wearing the same pair of Mini-Franks. And sometimes a parent will send a pair back for reconditioning that extends the shoes’ life even further.”
Heather says that 95 percent of her online sales have come through Instagram, but she also understands the value of meeting potential customers in person. “I did my first in-person show last December in Chicago,” she explains, “at an event called One Of A Kind. The people attending that show know handmade. Many of them even said my prices were too low.”
Heather offered “custom kick gift boxes” at the show, with leather swatch rings inside and instructions for ordering custom boots or shoes. She did raise her prices a little bit after the Chicago show—“It was a game changer!”—but a lot of people said they were still too low.
Still, with two small kids of her own, Heather plans to keep Mason Dixon products affordable. “I haven’t quite found the perfect balance yet between running a business and raising a family,” she confides. “My kids are my first priority, but I think customers generally understand if you communicate with them and let them know their boot order might be delayed just a little because a child has the flu or something. But it’s getting easier now that both my kids are in pre-school all day. And my superhero husband Dusty pulls single-parent duty on most Saturdays so that I can catch up.”
It’s that personal, one-to-one touch that has made Mason Dixon a success. And it’s a characteristic Heather treasures and shares with her peers. “All leather makers are doing something different,” she says. “That’s what’s so cool about it. It’s not competitive. Everyone has their own voice.”