Maine artist’s start-up enterprise leads to custom designs witha distinct sense of place
By Lynn Ascrizzi
It is no mere coincidence that the leatherwork being created by artist-designer Charlotte Woodman has evolved intoa harmonious synthesis of heritage craftsmanship with clean, functional, modern lines.
A big influence on her passion for fine handmade work is rooted in her good fortune to live, since childhood, in the picturesque village of historic Waldoboro, Maine. Her studio is set up in the modest side room of a rambling, Cape-style home, built in the 1860s. The charming residence, flanked by giant white pines, is located only one mile from the wide and deep Medomak River, whose scenic shoreline once bristled with shipyards and five-masted schooners.
The small town still resonates with the spirit of traditional handcrafts and impressive workmanship that once flourished in local industries — sawmills, granaries, granite yards, carriage and blacksmith shops, iron foundries and carding mills.
That cultural influence stretches beyond the town’s 1743 settlement, to the native peoples who wove baskets of brown ash and sweet grass, and stitched moccasins and clothing of deerskin and moosehide. Today, the spirit of heirloom arts is being transmuted by a creative community of fiber artists, organic market farmers, specialty bakers, cheese and hand soap makers, brewers, fine furniture builders, painters, sculptors and metalworkers. A reverence for the dignity of highly-skilled, hand labor has imbued Woodman’s carefully crafted leather handbags and accessories with a distinct sense of place
“I’ve always been creative and loved doing art since a child,” she reminisced, while seated in a sparse living area near a cheerily burning Jøtul wood stove, whose welcome warmth took the chill out of a damp and gray, spring morning. As she talked, her mother, artist-painter Lesley Woodman, worked quietly at a large wooden table in the kitchen-dining area, designing a whimsical thank you card for the upcoming June wedding of her oldest daughter, Jennifer.
Leatherwork first captured Charlotte Woodman’s imagination about five years ago. Her creative urge got sparked in Medomak High School art classes, particularly while learning screen printing. After graduation, she turned that technique into a small-scale business, selling T-shirts and dresses printed with her nature-inspired drawings and photographs, on Etsy.
“It was OK, but I needed to earn more money,” she said. “I started looking online for ideas. I was inspired by leather construction — the shapes people cut out of leather. I loved the material. Seeing how simple patterns come together is fascinating.”
She began her start-up enterprise by making clip-on hair bows out of garment leather. “I made them ona 1960s, Singer sewing machine. And, I made leather bracelets. The work was too hard on my machine. But, I got the leather bug.”
So, she saved up for a heavy-duty stitcher, by working as a waitress for three summers in the popular tourist town of New Harbor, Maine. After a bit of research, she bought a refurbished, heavy-duty stitcher with a cylinder-style bed, for about $1,100. She speculated that the model would make it easier for her to sew handbags.
“It was a love-hate relationship. It worked OK for a while, but I ended up struggling with the tension,” she recalled. A sewing machine repairman fixed the stitcher’s bent needle bar, “but it was only sort of right.”
Despite the frustrating setback, she persevered. Her next move was to buy a brand-new Juki 1541S, flatbed stitcher. It did the trick. “I made my first real handbag on the Juki, with random leathers purchased from a local leather supplier,” she said.
While gearing up, Woodman scoured the state, and beyond, to find bargain leather tools. “I had no budget at all,” she admitted. “I did research. And, I hunted for repurposed tools that might be used for leather as well.”
Some of her first tools were purchased from Liberty Tool Co., of Liberty, Maine(libertytoolco.com),a well-established business that sells a vast array of used tools and hardware.
“I bought from them a large, carpenter’s set square, that I use all the time, and an old awl and utility knives. I’ve since bought better awls from C.S Osborne & Co., and rivet-setting dies from Brettun’s Village”(brettunsvillage.com), aleather supply company based in Lewiston, Maine. The company also specializes in restoring antique trunks, vintage chests and toolboxes, and they sell trunk-restoration hardware.
“I spent so many hours delving into what tools people make and how to use them, like binding attachments for my sewing machine and pricking and stitching irons.” She sourced pricking irons and a leather lacing punch from Goods Japan (goodsjapan.com), a company that carries, among other items, Seiwa leathercraft tools. And, she got a strap cutter from Tandy Leather (tandyleather.com).
To connect with a leatherworking community, she visited the online forum, Leatherworker.net (leatherworker.net/forum/), spending hours posting questions like, what kind of edge finish to use on various types of leather.
ROUNDING THE CORNER
Friends and family were her first customers. Her early handbags were made of plain canvas, combined with leather trim, handles and bottoms. She ordered the material from Big Duck Canvas of Winder, Georgia (bigduckcanvas.com). She sold her first handbag in 2015.
While testing the marketing waters, with a network of acquaintances who liked her products, a close friend asked her to make a custom bag for her brother, to give to his girlfriend as a graduation gift. By a lucky coincidence, her friend happened to carry the handbag through a gift shop called Archipelago, purveyors of locally made goods, in Rockland, Maine.
“A woman working there said, ‘Oh, we love that!’ This led to putting my leatherwork in Archipelago — mostly my canvas-with-leather tote bags — priced from $140 to $200.”
All of her uphill slogging began to turn a corner. “I was having fun putting bags in the gift store. They were selling pretty well,” she said.
Around the same time, she made a couple of custom handbagsfor her longtime, childhood friend and current fashion designer, Alexa Stark. A graduate of Parson’s School of Design in New York City, Stark was in the planning stages of setting up a ONE-OFF pop-up shop in the city, to sell her sustainable fashion line. She encouraged Woodman to send handbags. That led to her collaboration with Stark — adding custom leather bags to her line. “We designed sample shoulder bags using tumbled leather with a pebbled look that I ordered from Springfield Leather Co.,” she said.
The bags were displayed in a New York showroom that Stark rented during the city’s renowned, annual Fashion Week. “A buyer expressed interest in the bags, which led to more sales. It was very exciting,” Woodman said. The collaboration boosted her enthusiasm for doing the finest leatherwork possible.
“Nowadays, I try to use high-quality materials. I get a lotof my leather manufactured by Horween and Wickett & Craig. I’ve been happy with them.” She showed her versatility as a leatherworker, when she designed a one-of-a-kind, goat fur vest with leather trim for a customer. “That was certainly an unusual request,” she said.
Her love of working with tools currently extends to her part-time job with Heritage Timber Wrights, also based in Liberty, where she works to support her budding leatherwork venture. Among other tasks, she does cutting and joinery for timber frame construction and general carpentry. She enjoys the work, but it brings a challenge faced by many new entrepreneurs, “Finding time to be creative,” she said.
“Right now, I’m working to make pretty simple designs that I can replicate easily and that I really like. I create the bag patterns myself, and am making small changes. I’m working on getting really happy with my end product, and that feels really good to me.”
She is also designing a website, in order to sell her products directly. “I plan to focus on about four or five styles that are popular,” she added.
On her worktable that day was asmall shoulder bag made of tumbled, veg-tan leather. Its canvas-backed flap was designed with leather edge binding and a patterned wool fabric manufactured by Pendleton Woolen Mill of Portland, Oregon (pendleton-usa.com/). “I plan to put the bag on my website,” she said. Among other studio items was a wallet made of milled harness leather, a prototype for smaller accessories.
“I’ve gotten to a point where I’ve learned most of what I need to know about making handbags. I’m working on improving designs and getting a better workflow. I love seeing my ideas come to life. I really enjoy being able to spend more time being creative and using my hands to make something beautiful and useful.”
FOR MORE INFO
Charlotte Woodman, owner, operator
1164 Bremen Road
Waldoboro, ME 04572