By Lynn Ascrizzi
If gray winter ever gets you down, think of the Greek island of Rhodes, set like a rough-cut gemstone in the sparkling Aegean.
“It’s called the ‘Island of the Sun,’” said Natalie Orfanidi, a gifted leather artist born and raised in Rhodes, the fourth largest island in Greece, a place where remains of ancient city walls, temples and other monuments resonate with the brilliant spirit of Greek antiquity. “The island has over 300 days of sunlight. Everywhere is near the water. It is quite hilly. There are a lot of mountains,” she said.
In 2015, Natalie and Michael Dale, an equally accomplished leatherworker, co-founded Epos Custom Leather in Rhodes.They live and work near Rhodes Town, a small village located on the northwestern tip of the island. Their snug workshop, set up in a 12-by-16-foot room on the second floor of their home, is only a 7-minute drive from the ever-present sea. “It’s pretty tiny,” Mike said, of their shared workplace. “Some of our projects spill out into the rest of the house.”
The couples’ finely-crafted, custom-made leather goods include passport cases, wallets, maps, holsters, guitar straps, purses, key fobs, archery arm guards and quivers. The highly-skilled, imaginative versatility of their leather carvings and special, historical recreations bring a distinctive vitality and character to their work.
“Epos (pronounced EH-pos) is a Greek word that means epic,” Natalie explained, a term that calls up legendary poems like the Odyssey, a classic tale about the harrowing journey of the Greek hero-king, Odysseus, who encounters fearsome sea monsters, giants, bewitching goddesses, ghost-spirits and plenty more, while he tries to sail home to Ithaca over the “wine-dark sea.”
Indeed, the captivating leather carvings created at Epos Custom Leather have their own epic dimension — artwork brimming over with powerful mythic archetypes from ancient Greece and other bygone cultures.
For instance, for an archer, Natalie carved an enchanting depiction of the winged horse, Pegasus, on a leather armguard. Imagery inspired by other ancient civilizations, such as their Viking compass designs carved on leather vambraces (forearm guards), are also part of the workshop’s repertoire.
The Epos leather line includes unique, historical re-enactment projects commissioned by the Association of Historical Studies Koryvantes, based in Athens. Formed in 2009, the association is dedicated to researching and applying the military heritage of the Greeks, from the Bronze Age to the late Byzantine period. The large society encourages the construction and testing of fully-functioning, “battle-ready, museum quality replicas,” accordingtothe organization. Projects created for Koryvantes require precise attention to detail and as much historic accuracy as possible.
Natalie’s involvement with Koryvantes stems from her passion for Olympic archery. In fact, making a quiver was one of her first leatherwork projects. Later, the historical society asked her to create an ancient Greek-style archery set that included a leather quiver, armguards and finger gloves to protect the archer from the bowstring.
Her recreation of a Scythian quiver, originally depicted on a centuries-old artifact, makes use of natural materials relevant to the era, such as bee’s wax, linen thread and veg-tanned leather. She also crafted a Mycenaean helmet made of thick leather, whose crest holder is decorated with a long, plume-like horse tail. To make it, she worked from a helmet depicted on a circa 1350 BC clay vessel fragment.
A stunning armguard, crafted by Mike for a Greek traditional archer, depicts fierce Scythian lions. The images were drawn from a metal artifact that is at least 2,000 years old.
Their Koravantes projects include colorful ancient Greek shields and scabbards. One of the most complex items that she and Mike have created, so far, is an example of early-Greek thoracic armor, built of thickly layered, leather scales. Warriors wore the archaic defensive equipment to shield the chest area. Natalie created the pattern for the ancient armor,and Mike crafted it.
Amazingly, the basic technology of composite leather armor is applied today in bulletproof vests, she pointed out. “It’s the same ‘philosophy.’ The leather layers prevent arrows from penetrating. Intact, ancient Greek thoraxes like these are not found. Linen does not withstand the flow of time. Leather deteriorates. We work from ancient depictions to make them as true as possible,” she said.
Was thoracic leather armor actually effective? “I subjected a test piece to attacks with a very sharp knife,” Mike noted, “and it stopped both the stabs and slash attacks.”
“I am currently making a series of thorax armor, a suit made out of leather and layers of linen, with glue,” Natalie added. “The very first forms of this armor were made in the 3rd or 4th century BC.”
“She is building most of the linen armor herself,” Mike said.
THE WORLD IS ONE ISLAND
Although they live on a relatively small island, Michael Dale and Natalie Orfanidi, like a growing number of today’s entrepreneurs, promote their leather art globally, through their website and social media. “I have repeat customers from the States. My best customers seem to be leatherworkers who see a holster that I made on Facebook or Instagram,” Mike said.
Epos leather products attract a diverse range of customers, from participants in live-action role-playing games (LARP), cosplayers (performance artists who take part in costume play), archers, hunters, competitive shooters, artists, police and fire personnel, outdoorsmen and everyday folks, he said.
Besides the income steadily garnered from their leather business, both he and Natalie hold down day jobs.Mike is a leatherwork educator who sets up personal, live classes taught by himself and other professional leatherworkers, at learnleather.com.
Natalie works as a physical therapist forMed Life, a recovery/rehabilitation clinic, on Rhodes. She also does volunteer work at Rhodes Hippotherapy Center, a nonprofit that offers therapeutic horseback riding (equine-assisted therapy), to promote physical and mental health.
“Along with my full-time job, my biggest and most loyal customer is Koryvantes,” she said of the historical association.
TOOLS, LEATHER AND PAINT
“I do a little bit of everything,”Mike said of his work. “My biggest strength is carving and construction with an emphasis on embossed carving. I like to carve faces.”
His first step is to decide what elements will go into his artwork. “For instance, I did a holster with an eagle and a silhouette of the island of Crete. I drew up a couple of sketches, in different positions and sizes. Once the customer chooses an overall design, I transfer it to leather. I use plain copy paper. I don’t get into fancy transfer methods. I’m very precise with my transfer,” he said.
His next step is carving with a swivel knife. After that, he uses standard leatherworking stamps or tools, mostly bevellers, and also backgrounding tools, matting tools and modeling spoons.
“The majority of my tools are made by Robert Beard,” he said, of the master toolmaker based in Farmington, New Mexico (robertbeardtools.scalabledata.com). “His ProSeries (handmade) tools are widely regarded as one of the best.”
Mike also works with tools crafted by Barry King of Sheridan, Wyoming(barrykingtools.com/handtools.htm). “He’s an exemplary toolmaker,” he said. He also admires hand tools made by Wayne Jueschke of Elko, Nevada. “He’s incredibly old school. You can only reach him by telephone.” (1-775-738-4885)
The Epos leather workshop makes use of a Cobra Class 4 heavy-duty stitcher. “But we mostly do hand stitching,” he added. “Sometimes, it’s easier to machine stitch some of the thick leather pieces, like the leather armor.”
Natalie’s specialty is painting. “I like to spend all my time on painting and pattern-making — creating designs from scratch,” she said. For paint, she uses the brand Golden Acrylic.
“They have every color imaginable. It’s better if you add Golden Hi-Flow Acrylic. Golden Acrylic is a thicker version; Hi-Flo is a thinner version. Thicker acrylic makes leather look plastic. I don’t use a matte finish. I may add a high-gloss finish on eyes, so they look wet, or on a sword, but I usually find acrylics don’t need a finish,” she advised.
For their leatherwork, they use cowhide, goatskin and kangaroo. Most of their leather is sourced from Hermann Oak Leather.
A HAPPY COINCIDENCE
Epos Custom Leather was founded about five years ago, but it put out its first roots in 2012,when Michael Dale and Natalie Orfanidi met via the well-known leatherwork group, leatherworker.net. The forum was founded in 2006 “to provide education, entertainment and fellowship for leatherworkers,” its website states.
The site’s “How do I do that?” format includes business tips, leather tool and sewing machinery advice, and more. The online discussion site gets thousands of “hits” per day and claims to be “the biggest and most active leatherworking community on the web or in the world.”
At the time, Mike was living in Chicago, Illinois, doing full-time police work. He also had launched a small business called Michael Dale Leather. “I got my start making holsters. As a police officer, I thought I could do a better job than what was available. It’s not as easy as you think!” he admitted. But it wasn’t long before his interest grew into a passion. “I spent all my spare time involved in leatherwork.”
Natalie was living 5,678 miles away, on the Greek island, Rhodes. An archery expert, she had launched a small business, called Huntress Custom Leather. But she got stumped on tooling techniques for leather carving. For advice, she turned to leatherworker.net.
“Greece has no history of leather carving, at all,” she explained. “It’s completely unknown. I needed help. There is no leather tooling being done here. And, I didn’t have tooling leather. I was struggling to carve hides that were ‘uncarvable.’ I had no books, no way of learning how to do it.”
As fate would have it,Mike had gotten involved with the online chat group. By a happy coincidence, when Natalie posted her leather-tooling question, he was moderating the chat room for leatherworker.net.
“I sent her an answer. Her question led to more chat conversations. Chatting turned into more chatting, which turned into more chatting. We fell in love,” he said. Thus, began his own epic voyage. In March 2015, he retired from the police force. Later that month,he moved to Greece.
“Natalie and I have complementary skill sets. We push each other and ourselves. She’s brilliant. It’s a collaboration effort. We each bring our own skills to every project. When we pull together, it’s usually better than what each of us could do by ourselves. It’s an amazing story. This is where my heart is. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Natalie,” he said.
LIVE LEATHERWORK CLASSES, ONLINE
In 2013, before leatherworker Michael Dale moved from Chicago to Rhodes, Greece, to co-create Epos Custom Leather with Natalie Orfanidi, he attended the Rocky Mountain Leather Trade Show, held annually in Sheridan, Wyoming. The close-knit community of leatherworkers and the show’s amazing instructors blew him away.
“It changed the course of my career. I saw things that I didn’t dream were possible to make with leather, I wanted to give other people the experience I had working with leatherwork masters,” Mike said.
His intensely creative experience sparked an idea — to set up an online site that provided live classes taught by top-notch leatherworkers. The classes would be geared for people with varying levels of skill, a place where folks could enjoy learning more about leatherwork in the privacy and comfort of their own homes.
His epiphany became a reality, when he launched learnleather.com. The site’s guest instructors are industry pros like Robert Beard of Farmington, New Mexico, recipient of the prestigious Al Stohlman Award for Achievement in Leathercraft, and Chan Geer of Sheridan, Wyoming, a master of Sheridan-style leather carving and an Al Stohlman Award recipient.
The leatherwork classes are held video-conference style. “I create a portal, so people can sign up for a class. I advertise each class, individually. I field all the questions from students and forward them in an orderly way to the instructors. Students get to ask questions in real time. All classes are recorded live, so they get to refer to the recording as many times as they like,” he said. The site also offers free videos.
The average class costs $30. Classes are limited to 100 participants, a quota that is regularly realized, he said. “I want classes to be affordable. Every class I’ve ever done is now available, as a video. Generally, I try to do an average of one class per month. I think it’s important to get the service out to interested people. There’s definitely a need for quality leather instruction.”
Epos Custom Leather
Michael Dale & Natalie Orfanidi, cofounders
Facebook — Epos Custom Leather
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