Alkahest Moccasins & Leathercrafts — custom-made goods hand-built in the wild heart of Oregon’s high alpine country
By Lynn Ascrizzi
Eight years ago, on a fine spring day, Dustin Lyons and Tiera Ptacek set out on a life-changing, 350-mile odyssey, driving from San Francisco to Ashland, Oregon, in a tiny, Chevy Geo Metro.
“We had it packed with pretty much everything we owned,” Dustin recalled, which, given the size of their vehicle, wasn’t a heck of a lot. “It was a funny old car,” Tiera added. “We had about $600 to our name and nowhere to work, and nowhere to live.”
For them, the 5½-hour trip, from coastal California to eastern Oregon’s breathtaking, high-alpine terrain, was a thrilling risk — a big leap into the wild unknown — a spirited gamble that took raw nerve and a shared joy in the grand adventure that is life.
Their goal? To study shoemaking with William “Bill” Shanor, now in his 70s, a luminary among makers of hand-built shoes and boots and cofounder, with his wife, Julie Bonney, of the Bonney & Wills School of Shoemaking & Design based in Ashland.
“Our whole goal was to live near him and study with him. We just wanted to make a leap. We like to make a dream happen. We’re a couple who support each other, following our passions in life,” Tiera said.
She and Dustin have been sharing their lives together since 2005. For a number of years, they lived in Alaska. And, they did a lot of world traveling. “We ended up falling in love in Guatemala,” Dustin said. “We spent a lot of time in Asia. We did the Trans Siberian Railway from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Ulan Bator), the capital of Mongolia.”
Their drive to Ashland was made after he had returned from seven monthsof teaching English as a second language in Vietnam. During the timethey were apart, she studied flamenco dancing in San Francisco. They kept in touch through Skype.
“We didn’t know what we wanted to do. We had hit a point where we wanted to settle down,” she said. While skyping, they discussed future goals. They remembered being enthralled by the Renaissance-style moccasins they saw displayed two years earlier at the Arizona Renaissance Festival, held near Apache Junction.
Renaissance fairs are entertaining events that attempt to recreate a historical era, such as the early Middle Ages or an imagined, English village during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Participants don colorful period costumes, march in parades, perform period music and display handcrafts.
“The term, ‘Renaissance moccasins,’ got its foothold from Hank Zander, who had lived in southern Oregon, for many years,” Dustin explained. “He developed that style of shoe in the late ’60s, from European and Native American design elements — a kind of hybrid. This style caught on at the Renaissance fairs.”
“We decided to find someone to teach us that style of shoe. That style is what we are now making,” Tiera added.“We always dreamt of those shoes. Our whole goal was to live near Shanor and study with him.”
After arriving in Ashland, Dustin and Tiera parked the Metro in a campground. Soon, he found work at a hemp clothing store;she got a job at a natural foods co-op. They had already signed up for Shanor’s weeklong, moccasin-making course, which was to start in July.
Ordinarily, the shoemaking school charged $1,975 for a seven-day workshop in crafting moccasins, according to information at their website, shoemaking.com/. “We got a discount, because there were two of us. The course cost us about $1,300 per person,” Dustin said.
Bill Shanor, who is currently retiring, became their mentor — a guide through the wilderness of learning leatherworking from scratch.“He is such an inspiration. He works with your creativity — the process of how you learn.He is amazing, one on one,” she said.
They began the class as rank amateurs. “Neither one of us had used a sewing machine before,” he admitted. For the first day in the course, Shanor gave them a shortened version of his Sewing Boot Camp.
“The class was challenging, but he kept us focused. He made it interesting and did a good job of simplifying something that is really complicated for someone who had never done it before. “It was pretty overwhelming. But, one of the things that made it work for us — we discovered pretty quickly that we had a natural aptitude for shoemaking. It could have been an expensive dead end, but we were able to make it work,” he said.
“It was a big learning curve,” she added. “We practiced for the next six months. That’s when we started developing moccasins. We expanded into shoulder bags and hip belts, which are like a fanny pack — great for hiking or going to the grocery store.”
“Whenever we had a question or needed a bit of help, we’d go down and talk to Shanor,” he said.
By the spring of 2012, they began taking their handcrafted leather goods to festivals. Their first major event was Northwest Folklife Festival in Seattle, about 6½ hours northwest of Joseph. “It’s great. We love it. We did our seventh year this past Memorial Day weekend,” she said.
ALCHEMY AT WORK
Today, Dustin Lyon and Tiera Ptacek, (TAH-CHEK) run their small but growing enterprise, Alkahest Moccasins & Leathercrafts, in Joseph, Oregon, a town of 1,000 souls, located about 550 miles northeast of Ashland. “Alkahest is an alchemical term,” Tiera, 37, explained.“It means a universal solvent.”
Alchemy is thought to be an ancient forerunner of chemistry, whose practitioners sought to transmute base metals, like lead, into incorruptible metals, like gold. Alchemy also refers to “a power or process that transforms something in a mysterious or impressive way,” according to Merriam-Webster.
“There is a kind of alchemy felt when working with creativity and animal skins. Your imagination — moving that all together — is a deepexperience,” she reflected.
No longer homeless, the creative duo now owns a 50-year-old, 600-square-foot log cabin situated on about two acres at the edge of Eagle Cap Wilderness — an area comprised of 361,446 acres of thick forests, granite peaks, mountain lakes, narrow ridges and glacier-made valleys, set in the heart of the Wallowa Mountains, within the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.
“It’s just outside our door — the largest wilderness area in Oregon — high and mountainous. We’re near WallowaLake.We found a little chunk of Alaska here. That’s what we fell in love with,” Dustin, 41, said.
Their vast and scenic “backyard,” is also home to some wild and impressive critters. “We’ve seen black bears in our compost heap and signs of mountain lions,” he said, of the local cougars reputed to be the largest in the Pacific Northwest. He and Tiera have also spotted deer, elk, hawks and eagles.
But, they’re not just living on spectacular scenery and wildlife sightings, although the wilderness habitat profoundly influences their creative leather venture. Their custom, hand-cut, hand-built moccasins, which feature earth-magical designs that combine native American and ancient Celtic motifs, have since grown into a life-sustaining business, an enterprise that Dustin likes to call “our homespun outfit.”
Primal shapes, like roots, flowers, birds and trees add layers of symbolic enchantment to their richly folkloric art form — mythic symbols that they also find in their last names — “lion” (Lyon) and “little bird” (ptacek in Czech.)
“We can make you a pair of ‘dentist-appointment’ shoes or a set of end-of-the-world, party boots, with many options in between,” Dustin said, of the diverse moccasin styles they offer.
Their biggest show of the year is the Oregon Country Fair. Among the many other fairs and festivals they attend are Art on the Green, an annual arts and performance festival held in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and KVMR Celtic Festival, held in Grass Valley, California.
Based on sales made at leather shows, Alkahest’s most profitable leather goods are the moccasins. “They start at $375 and go up from there. We’ve made a pair for $2,000. On average, to build something low and simple, it takes about eight shop hours. A knee-high moccasin, with stone inlays and intricate designs, might take 25 to 30 hours. The number of buttons determines the height and price of the shoes,” Dustin said.
In terms of volume, however, leather handbags are their bestsellers, he added. “We move more bags than probably anything else. Bags, belts and other small leather goods are made ahead of shows.”
They like to offer at least 20 handbags at a show. “We do an assembly line production; then it seems to go faster,”Tiera said, of their workshop pace.
Sample moccasins are displayed at their show booths, where clients order the footwear styles they want. Both Dustin and Tiera take careful measurements. “We do a full tape cast of the foot, as high up the leg as they want the moccasins,” he said. “That’s why we do festivals,” Tiera pointed out. “We need your foot in hand to measure.”
Dustin estimated that clients receive their orders in 3-10 months. “Currently, we’re out about seven months. We have a quicker turnaround in the spring. By late fall, we have a pretty deep list that takes us out 10 months.”
“We’re on the road a lot in spring and fall,” she added. “All year, we’re making shoes and belts. In January and February, when we don’t have a show, it’s a good time to get caught up on orders.”
Their return policy? “We have no returns. Out of all the shoes we’ve made, we’ve had only one complaint that it didn’t work. That was five years ago. We’ve learned a lot in the process,” she said.
“We tell people that a moccasin is an unlasted shoe,” he explained. “Your foot is the only thing that gives it any sort of form. When you first get the moccasin, it should be a challenge to get it on, the first few times. It is more or less a leather sock with a sole attached, but once the foot gets in there, the leather begins to stretch and mold to your foot.”
By contrast, conventional footwear creates a cavity that the foot slips into, he noted. “Moccasins are more like a second skin. The foot can move and behave and operate as it was designed to, as opposed to being confined and constrained by a generic cavity.”
MAKING IT WORK
Working together, day after day in a relatively small space, has its challenges. To meet this, Dustin and Tiera arrived at a simple solution— to give each other space and grace. “We try to split the shop hours; otherwise, we’re on top of each other, 24-7,” she said. She does the morning shift, from 8 a.m. to noon. Then, depending upon the time of year, they work together from noon to 2 p.m. After that, he covers the late afternoon shift.
“We both learned how to make shoes. Dustin makes most of the shoes. They’re made inside out. It takes strength. We both make bags and straps. I like to let my imagination go and do something out of my head,” she said.
At this time, their main shop tool is their versatile 206RB Consew Walking Foot sewing machine. “The foot ‘walks’ across the leather, as opposed to a rolling foot machine. I’ve been stitching embellishments with it and have been happy with it from day one. There is nothing that we can’t accomplish with that machine. It allows us to build our moccasins, bags and a variety of small leather goods,” he said.
Their mentor, Bill Shanor, had gifted them a Consew treadle-foot, sewing machine. “We don’t have it up and running yet. It’s quite an old model. Shanor said it was one of his best stitchers. He did his last, one-on-one class, recently. We feel very fortunate,” Dustin said, of the fruitful relationship he and Tiera have shared with their exceptional teacher.
For stitching various parts of their moccasins and for other leather goods, they use 92-weight and 138-weight polyester threads. One of the brands they use is SGT Knots (sgtknots.com ).
As for leathers, they work with 6-to-8-ounce bullhide and bison for the base layers of their moccasins. “We have a bunch of thinner leathers, primarily cowhide, deer and elk. Ninety-nine percent of our leather is purchased from Hide House in Napa, California (hidehouse.com). We’ve also been getting some nice leathers from Maverick Leather in Bend, Oregon (maverickleathercompany.com/),” he said.
Future goals? One recent accomplishment is the creation of their new website,alkahestleather.com, launched this past June.
“We’d love to shave our 12 to 15 shows per year, down to 10,” he replied. “Joseph is a summer destination spot, with tourist shops like boutiques, so in the next 3-5 years, we’d like to have more presence in town, especially with the moccasins, so people can come to us.
“It has taken a number of years to build up a lifestyle that is sustainable,” he continued. “About two years ago, I felt like this business was going to work. We bought this property and in 2018, built a workshop. We want to get to the point where everything is paid off. For the first time in my life, I’m feeling more settled.”
An immediate goal is to find a van bigger than their old 2001 Honda Odyssey, to better accommodate all their show equipment.
“Based on our lifestyle, we made the decision to have modest needs and modest goals. We might earn less than someone else, but they might not be able to enjoy their environment the way we do. It’s a huge part of what makes us happy and inspired — to live as close as we can to the natural world,” he said.
FOR MORE INFO
Dustin Lyons & Tiera Ptacek
Alkahest Moccasins & Leathercrafts
P.O. Box 1022
Joseph, OR 97846