By Gene Fowler
Leathercraft artist Freddie Matara, best known for his stunning leather cuff bracelets and his leather watch bands, wanted something a little different when he went looking for a new living and working space about two years ago. The former frontman for the rock band Birthday had become an established artist in Brooklyn during the new millennium, but after years of thriving in the excitement that pulses through the city, he wanted to slow it down a bit and focus on his art.
Freddie and his lovely wife Rebecca found what they didn’t know they were looking for in the slightly upstate town of Patterson, New York, a burg of 12,000 souls on the Connecticut border. “We’d looked at about 50 places,” Freddie says, “but there was always something one of us didn’t like. When we found this, we both just knew.” The couple now lives in a former church. Built in 1875, the venerable building served as a house of worship until 1960, and then it sat vacant for 25 years. A former owner refurbished the historic structure as a residence.
“We have one neighbor down the hill,” Freddie adds, “but other than that, it’s all solitude and nature.” It’s a perfect setting, he says, for the meditative nature of leatherwork. “I won’t even have music playing a lot of the time, and when I’m working three hours will pass like it was ten minutes. The beauty and simplicity of the work—and the way you can express yourself through repetitive motions—make it a very powerful experience.”
Freddie Matara Leather is one of the best examples of a creative leatherworker with an active social media/internet presence operating a successful business from a gloriously remote outpost. Which is not to say there aren’t challenges. A nor’easter roared through the day after the couple moved in, knocking out power for seven days. Then six weeks later, a fairly rare tornado ripped through the area. “There’s a lot of great old trees here that get toppled in storms,” he says, “and we get some rolling blackouts.”
Like so many New Yorkers—and Americans in general—the tragic events of September 11, 2001, have had a lasting impact on Freddie’s life. Changes in Manhattan social and business traffic resulting from the attack redirected his professional and artistic journey in ways he never imagined.
Matara had moved to the Big Apple from his native Philadelphia in 1999, to give his rock band Birthday a chance to thrive on a bigger stage. He’d gained his first experience with leather back home in Philly in the mid-90s, working for the western wear store Gilly Jeans in the historic Society Hill neighborhood, where his responsibilities included punching holes in leather belts and dyeing the edges of cowboy boot soles.
The job also involved visits to the local Tandy store on the Delaware River. “I remember thinking the first time I went in, ‘Wow, there’s a place for all this leatherworking material? That’s great!’” On one of his trips to Tandy he bought a belt blank and some rapid rivets with a setter. He then used a hammer—the kind you hammer nails with—to make himself a studded punk-rock belt. Around the time he moved to New York City, where he supported his musical activity by working in a Manhattan bar, he also started experimenting with making cuffs. “My wrists are rather thin,” he explains, “so I wanted a wide, heavy cuff. And it’s hard to find things for my size wrist, so I decided to try and make myself something nice.”
Plunking down a hundred bucks, he bought some latigo leather and some stitching and edging tools and produced his first cuffs. Around the time the twin towers fell, he was making them for friends. When friends of friends liked them so much, he started making a few sales. The workers from the World Trade Center and Wall Street, who had been his customers at the bar, stopped coming in when their offices all moved to New Jersey. With the watering hole’s business dried up, Freddie’s friends, impressed with his artistry, suggested he might try the leathercraft business full-time.
“I made six cuff watch bands with full hand-stitching and offered them on eBay,” he recalls. “Compared to the work I’m doing now, they were rather crude, but all six sold within a week.” He hasn’t looked back since.
Freddie refined his artistry and techniques by devouring Al Stohlman books and when YouTube came online in 2005, he scoured the internet channel for early postings of leathercraft instruction videos. “The online forum leatherworker.net was also really helpful,” he adds. “It’s been somewhat replaced by Facebook groups now, but I was on it just recently. And I met the administrator, ‘Johanna the Leather Lady,’ a couple of years ago in Sheridan.”
Leathercraft gatherings in Sheridan, Wyoming, and Prescott, Arizona, are a mecca for artists wishing to improve their work and Freddie regards classes taken on such trips as essential. “One of my favorites was a class I took with Peter Main,” he says. “It was just special to be in his presence because he’s a living master. Watching his hands and his tool selections, I felt as though I could actually see his brain tell his hands what to do. It was mesmerizing. And I was amazed when he told me, ‘I’ve got my eye on you.’” Though he has many leathercraft heroes, Freddie says he aspires to create work as “unique and clean” as Peter Main’s.
The chorus of voices praising his work on his Instagram account indicate that Freddie Matara is well on his way. “People say my work is recognizable, that when they see it, they know immediately it’s mine.” Coming from such a self-assured maker, that statement doesn’t come off as brag, just fact. “I started off envisioning rich Spanish leather, in deep tones of burgundy-brown and with fine tooling details,” he continues. “And my vision has evolved over the years. I learned Old West techniques, what the cowboys brought to the table; then I mixed in some Native American design, a bit of European refinement and put my own rock-n-roll spin on it. I believe it’s a unique combination of all those influences.”
He uses mostly European undyed vegetable-tanned leather and some American bridle leather. “My work is not very tool heavy,” he says. “I don’t do a lot of floral carving, but I do include a lot of stamp work. The European veg-tanned leather is more malleable. And it’s lighter in color, which makes my dyes pop with more of a wow factor.”
Freddie also says that he prefers single-bend hides of the European veg-tanned leather. “It’s the best specific cut,” he explains. “There’s no belly and no neck roll – it’s great for belts.” It’s gauged more evenly, he adds, and it doesn’t have scarring from barbed-wire or insect bites. “It generally costs more, but it’s worth it.”
He uses kangaroo leather for lacing, and he’s also found it interesting to work with alligator and other reptile skins, French goat leather and other exotic hides. Being a lefty, in a world where most tools are created for right-handers, has also proved an engaging challenge. “I enjoy the different effects that are created from using right-handed tools in my left hand,” he says.
In addition to being handsome and beautiful, Freddie’s signature cuffs and cuff watch bands come with descriptions that are big fun in themselves. A brown leather wrist cuff, for instance, is a Traditional American Cowboy ROCKSTAR style Bracelet. A slim brown leather bracelet cuff is made in a Lean and Sexy Cowboy western style. And a black leather cuff goes for the gusto as a Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas style wristband [ala] Depp/Thompson.
Freddie’s creativity also lends its unique style to the occasional belt, wallet, card case, pair of suspenders, guitar strap and dog collar. And as one might expect, learning from other accomplished leathercraft artists has inspired Freddie to share his techniques, talents and insights with others. A video in which he teaches his signature organic sunburst fade is available from learnleather.com, and he has taught classes in person at the Rocky Mountain Leather Trade Show in Sheridan, Wyoming, and the Southwest Leather Workers Conference in Prescott, Arizona.
“I love that high desert landscape,” he says of Arizona. “And Prescott has all the attributes I look for in a place. It’s got great art, culture, food, and the weather’s fantastic. It also offers more of a whimsical nature in its leatherworking style that plays well with my own sensibilities.”
When I asked Freddie toward the end of our interview if there was anything else he wanted readers to know, he asked me if the photo he sent of himself could include his wife in the picture. I said, “Well, heck yeah.”
“She’s a big part of what I do,” he elaborated. “She’s been so very supportive, every step along the way. She lifts me up.” And with those words, dear reader, I venture to say…. anyplace these beautiful folks chose to dwell would be a kind of church all its own.