By Nick Pernokas
Digital media is here to stay. And like it or not, it is affecting the ancient art of leatherwork tremendously. A young leather worker has access to a virtual library of lessons that 30 years ago he would not have without a long apprenticeship. The learning curve has been flattened for the ambitious artists out there and the results can be seen in the halls of leather shows around the world. The work is really good and it’s not just being produced by wizened old saddlemakers anymore. A case in point is Attack Line Leather.
At 32, Austin Carter has been a career firefighter for 10 years. Originally, Austin studied nursing in his hometown of Corpus Christi. He found that he didn’t like it as much as he thought he would. A chance encounter with the director of the Del Mar College Regional Fire Academy led him to change his choice of careers. When he graduated, the Victoria Fire Department had an opening at one of their six stations. Today, Austin’s work is a mixed bag; the firefighters there are trained as EMTs and they have to be able to conduct swift water rescues, fight structural and vehicular fires, as well as the grass fires that Texas is known for.
About four years ago, a fellow firefighter showed him a knife sheath he’d made. Austin was impressed and asked his friend to show him how he did it. His friend showed him how to do some basic sewing and cutting. Austin bought some tools, and leather, and made a sheath for himself. He was then hooked on leatherwork.
“From there, I just kept going after it,” says Austin.
YouTube and Tandy Leather became his modes of learning. The wealth of information online allowed the self-taught leathercrafter to exponentially increase the level of his work. He followed some of Don Gonzales’ online instructions on pattern making and he taught himself to make patterns. Once he felt like he understood the basic skills, he began to focus on the art side of things.
“I began drawing, and drawing and practicing every day,” remembers Austin.
Austin’s schedule at the Victoria, Texas, fire department was a relatively good one for a hobby. He worked 48 hours on and 96 off. The leatherwork filled the down time and helped him to relax. It didn’t remain a hobby for long though. As Austin expanded his expertise into other items, he began to make some of the essential leather products that firefighters used, like radio holsters, helmet shields and straps.
“After a while, people started noticing.”
Soon, Austin was making and selling products to fellow firefighters. As his work became a business, Austin realized that he needed a name for it. His wife, Monica, suggested that he name it after something that was important on the firetruck. An “attack line” is the first hose taken off the truck to fight a fire. Attack Line Leather became the obvious choice.
Although Austin started out initially making mostly firefighting products, he rapidly progressed to more mainstream products, like wallets and belts. Austin studied books on the Sheridan floral patterns and began to incorporate the style more and more into his leatherwork.
“I was getting more into the Sheridan-style art form. My passion had shifted over into other types of leathercraft.”
Austin enjoys customizing leatherwork towards his customer’s interests. He tries to incorporate a little bit of their lifestyle into what he makes for them. Figure carving and color come into play in this process.
“It’s a lot of fun for me and seeing the client’s reaction is priceless.”
Ninety-nine percent of Austin’s customers come from word of mouth and Instagram. People enjoy the visual medium to shop for leather products.
“Marketing for me is Instagram and a little bit of Facebook.”
Although Austin markets his products through social media, he’s also involved in the virtual medium through YouTube. He started his own YouTube channel where he chronicles his leatherwork. This started out as a way for him to keep track of his work, but it has morphed into more. After Austin had 1000 followers, he realized people were really interested in what he was doing. Today, he has around 60 how-to videos on YouTube and close to 10,000 subscribers.
“The whole goal, I think now, is showing the new artisan how to get started, save some money and not get overwhelmed.”
Austin’s online tutorial projects range from a beginner to an intermediate level. The thing that makes Austin’s videos special is that he has made this journey himself and remembers it. He can present the material in a way that is unintimidating to the new leatherworker. And, Austin continues to strive for improvement in his own work.
“I just want to show my passion for the leathercraft and, hopefully, help the beginner get some inspiration from them.”
Some of Austin’s favorite projects are adding leatherwork to other products. These are also popular with the younger crowd. Recently, he’s been finding wooden beer caddies and personalizing them by adding tooled leather plaques. He is replacing the straps on Croc shoes with highly-personalized leather straps. Austin is also customizing the Hey Dude shoes with tooled leather. He has even found a way to glue the plaques on the shoes instead of sewing them on.
In the future, Austin hopes to increase his video library. He would like to set up a website to sell his patterns and artwork. For the time being though, the fire department comes first and the leatherwork is fit in when he has time. Austin can retire after 20 years with the fire department and he hopes to have his business built up by then so that he can seamlessly transition into it full time. In-person teaching will also be part of his future plans.
“I have found a real passion in instruction and getting people started. It’s kind of contagious when you see someone get it.”
Austin works out of a converted garage at his home in Inez, which is just outside of Victoria. Among Austin’s custom benches is a smaller sized one where his daughter, Ryan, can be found stamping on scrap leather. Monica also enjoys spending time in the shop. When you are a first responder, you have to take advantage of family time whenever you can.
To find out about Attack Line Leather, look for them on Instagram or drop an email to Attacklineleather.email@example.com.