Y-Knot Lace is built on kangaroo leather’s tensile strength
By Lynn Ascrizzi
Y-Knot Lace is a small business owned and operated by Barb Sorenson, in Kalispell, Montana. She runs the enterprise singlehandedly from the home she shares with her husband, JR Sorenson, a long-haul truck driver. There, in an office space set up in a spare room, she sells her company’s main product — fine kangaroo leather lace.
“I get my lace from Australia — all kangaroo leather,” she said, of the premium product sold in 54-yard spools and 12-yard hanks. “I also sell ‘yarders’ for $1 — 2-to-3 feet of various colored lace. I usually offer these at trade shows.”
Business is steady, she said. “I sell to a lot of craftspeople and to professional leatherworkers, like saddle makers, who use it to lace up the skirts on the back of a saddle, or for decorative purposes. And, people use it for things like dog leads, handbags, wallets and key chains. One of my customers makes coasters.”
The leather lace is available in 27 different colors that range from the primary hues, red, blue and yellow, to designer colors, such as, blue haze, burgundy, whiskey, chocolate and purple. The lace comes in six widths — from 3/32 of an inch to 3/8ths of an inch.
She also offers five models of bench-sized hand-tools that bevel, cut and split leather lace. “They’re all manual. You don’t plug them in. As long as the blade is sharp, the tools also can be used with rawhide, cowhide, and more,” she explained. Models include small, large, combination and double-sided bevelers, and a splitter. Two local machinists of Vortech Manufacturing, Inc., a production and prototype job-shop based in Kalispell, build the tools.
“They’re great — good ol’ country boys and good friends,” Sorenson said, of the Vortech machinists who have been making these tools for Y-Knot since 2010, shortly after she owned the business.
Sorenson’s office equipment is downright basic — a laptop computer and a smartphone. “I keep things very simple. I store my lace and other products and supplies in a closet. I do shipping mostly through the post office, or whatever way the customer wants,” she said.
The enviable simplicity of her successful enterprise includes pack-up-and-go mobility. Whenever the need arises, say, an upcoming trade show, she can cram her 16-foot trailer full of office gear and merchandise, attach it to her ¾-ton pickup and hit the road.
As it turns out, for close to a year, she has been doing double-duty at her daughter’s home near Cold Spring, Texas, located about a 30-hour drive from Kalispell.
“Our daughter, Alisha Wells, 32, is in nursing school and has two kids, ages 1 and 4. They need a gramma. At night, I do the lace business,” Sorenson said, matter-of-factly. Like many women, she strives to balance work and family, and she’s glad to have the independence and flexibility to do so. “I’d have a tough time doing what I’m doing, if I worked for someone else,” she reflected. Her older daughter, Cherie Gunderson, 46, is a surgery technician in Kalispell and has two grown children.
At the time of this interview, electric power had just been restored in the Cold Spring area, which like the rest of Texas, had been clobbered by freak February storms which brought intense cold, ice and snow, countless burst water pipes, a state-wide power grid breakdown and dangerous, impassable roads. “We just got our water back today,” she said in late February, from her daughter’s home.
WHY KANGAROO LEATHER?
Y-Knot Lace sales are made online through the company’s website and at trade shows. Some customers order directly by phone, text or email.
“Of course, lace is our biggest seller,” Sorenson, 67, said. “Most of my sales are made online; I very seldom see customers in person.” But, when she hooks up her trailer and heads to a trade show, such as the Boot and Saddle Makers Roundup in Wichita Falls, Texas, she enjoys greeting folks face to face. Despite the COVID pandemic, she attended the show’s two-day event, held in October 2020. “There weren’t as many vendors, but we all had a good time,” she said.
She noted that the 2020 Rocky Mountain Leather Trade Show in Sheridan, Wyoming had been cancelled. The show, however, is set to open, May 21-23, 2021. Sorenson also attended the Southwest Leather Workers Trade Show, in Prescott, Arizona, in February 2020. Southwest organizers cancelled the February 2021 event, but according to their website, the show will reconvene, Feb. 25-27, 2022.
Often, trade show visitors approach the Y-Knot Lace booth to inquire about the virtues of kangaroo leather lace and to ask her to explain why the product is priced higher than cowhide lace. For such inquiries, Sorenson has a ready answer: “I’ll just give them a strip of kangaroo lace and say: ‘Try and break it!’ And, they’ll say: ‘Whoa! Wow! This is way stronger!’ ”
The tensile strength of kangaroo lace impresses folks the most, she said. In fact, kangaroo leather has four times the tensile strength of cowhide. “People can do a project, and it doesn’t break.” The leather’s tight, dense fiber structure also keeps it from stretching as much as other leathers, she added. “One customer, a gal who teaches crafts to youngsters in a 4-H class, told me that her kids are so spoiled by kangaroo lace, they won’t go back to the cowhide. It is nice lace.”
Unfortunately, she and her two daughters came down with COVID-19, last year. Fortunately, they all recovered. And Y-Knot Lace didn’t lose any business. “My customers were very good to me. I have a ton of them,” she said, citing buyers in Texas, Oklahoma, Oregon, North Dakota, Minnesota, Montana, Arizona, Washington, Indiana, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Wyoming, “and a little in Canada.”
She averages 550 to 600 sales per year, not including trade show sales. “Each sale could be one or 10 items,” she said. Her largest order was for over 100 items. “That’s very unusual. Most orders are for one or two items. People like to order for a specialty project.”
Sales of bevelers and splitters do particularly well at trade shows, she pointed out. “Once they buy one, however, that’s it. I sell a lot of bevelers to customers in Australia, New Zealand, Italy, Germany and Japan. Delivery can take, on average, three to four weeks, when I sell overseas.”
Any new goals set for the business?
“To be honest, I’m probably going to keep things going like it is,” she said.
“I am very blessed.”
QUOTE FOR SIDEBAR
“When my husband, JR, learned about the sale, we checked out the business. He said: ‘Let’s do it!’ We worked out all the details.”
— Barb Sorenson, Y-Knot Lace
HOW Y-KNOT LACE WAS LAUNCHED
In 2009, Barb Sorenson began a whole new career as owner and operator of Y-Knot Lace in Kalispell, Montana. Her enterprise specializes in kangaroo leather lace, a strong but soft, multipurpose product used in large and small leather goods.
But before she became a first-time business owner, for a number of years, Sorenson worked as a bookkeeper for Weissman’s Hardware Store in Kalispell. At the time, toolmaker Ron Edmonds was working full-time in the store’s tool department. He also ran Ron’s Tool Company, a business based in his home workshop in Kalispell, where he handcrafted premium leather tools. He asked Sorenson if she could do some bookkeeping work for his company.
She agreed. So, at 3 p.m., after her workday at the hardware store was done, she picked up her youngest daughter and tackled the extra bookkeeping job. Soon, Edmonds asked her to work at polishing the leather tools.
“I started with round edgers and the straight French edgers,” used for French edging and skiving. “Eventually, Ron taught me how to make the leather tools.” By that time, she had quit the hardware job.
“Then, one day, Ron told me: ‘I’m leaving for Oregon. You want to run the tool company?’ So, I ran the shop for several years before he came back, in 2005,” she said. In 2008, while still working for the tool company, she picked up part-time hours at a local Walmart.
But, in 2009, Jim Downey, then owner and operator of Jim Downey Lace in Skull Valley, Arizona, called Edmonds. “He jokingly asked Ron if I was interested in another part-time job!” Sorenson recalled. It turned out that Downey wanted to retire and sell his business.
“When my husband, JR, learned about the sale, we checked out the business. He said: ‘Let’s do it!’ We worked out all the details. JR came up with the new business name, Y-Knot Lace. The end result was that we bought Downey Lace in December 2009.”
Next, she and Downey packed up the kangaroo leather lace inventory and business records in Skull Valley and shipped them to Kalispell. “When I got home from Arizona, I was the proud owner of Y-Knot Lace,” she said.
Downey only shared a few hints about running the company, but the business transfer did not involve a steep learning curve. “Basically, he gave me the customer list, and I bought the lace stock and the small and large-sized, lace bevelers. We worked out what I needed to get permits. Then, I was on my own.”
After she set up her home office, she sought the expertise of a local machine shop and arranged to have its machinists keep building the bevelers and splitters. “When I began selling Y-Knot kangaroo lace, I was still working at Walmart and at Ron’s Tool Company. My husband continued to work at his trucking job,” she said.
But, by April 2011, toolmaker Ron Edmonds was ready to retire. He sold his business to saddle maker Toby Yoder of St. Ignatius, Montana. Meanwhile, through Sorenson’s care and attention, Y-Knot Lace was thriving. She no longer worked at Walmart. By 2014, she was busy running her leather lace enterprise, full time.
“I love this business. I enjoy my customers. They’re wonderful. I absolutely made the right decision,” she said.
WHY NOT LEARN MORE?
PO Box 2158
Kalispell, MT 59901
Barb Sorenson, owner, operator
(Includes beveler how-to
info and instructional videos.)