by Gene Fowler
As I sat wondrously immersed in the universe of the television program Yellowstone during its recently concluded fourth season—the hats, the horses, ranchers, cowboys, pretty women, gorgeous country, and a lone guitar—the notion that folks might have been savoring the same scenery on the other side of the world was the farthest thing from my mind.
The Republic of South Africa, for instance. Like many, if not most, Americans, my awareness of the nation on the southern tip of the African continent was so limited that it might as well have been on Mars. Then Shop Talk! asked me to write about the young South African leathercraft artist Arran Wood, who Instagram’s his beautiful and unique creations of equine tack with the handle @woodenwulf.
And when I asked Arran to tell me a little about his life in the former Dutch and British colony, he mentioned that Yellowstone is one of his favorite TV shows. And even more than the sumptuous landscape of the American West and the regional intrigue that dramatizes the collision of interests of a longtime ranching family, developers, politicians, Native Americans, and a bunkhouse full of colorful buckaroos, it’s the horse culture that captures Arran’s eye.
The twenty-three-year-old South African spent his first ten years in the urban environment of Cape Town, population 4.6 million-plus. “My family moved to a horse and cattle farm about twelve years ago,” he says. “Over the years I grew to know horses and their nature…. Slowly, over time I became a better rider through cattle herding and endurance riding. Then about four and a half years ago I saw some very interesting tack and bridle styles on Instagram.”
Living in South Africa, he continues, “it’s difficult to buy things from overseas, so I was inspired to make my own. I’ve always had a keen interest in making things with my hands, and after making my first bridle I realized there’s a market for this style of tack. So, I set about to create that for people.”
Arran says he learned leatherwork through trial and error, taking up the artform about the same time as his dad. “My whole family is creative. My mom spins her own wool from our sheep and does a lot of weaving. She also runs an outreach program called Hopeknitters. And my sister is a photographer; her business is Paigewoodphotography. My father studied fashion design and worked in that field for some time, then moved into designing buildings instead of clothes. He is also a skilled carpenter and does his own leatherwork, although it’s very different from my own. He makes and sells gun holsters and belts under the brand Arctic Wolf Gear. He taught me some leatherwork techniques, but we sort of picked up the trade at the same time and learned together.”
Arran reports that leatherworking tools are difficult to find in South Africa and expensive when you do find them. “There are a couple shops in the major cities and one or two good online stores. But I’m careful to maintain my equipment, keep my tools sharpened and oil them well, so they last a long time. In terms of the leatherworking craft in my country, I think there is a massive lack of skilled professionals who genuinely care about their work. You can find plenty of leather products, but there doesn’t seem to be much skill in the works. We suffer from a very large amount of unskilled labor, and we lack the professionals to teach these skills and hand them on. But at the same time, you’ll find some small businesses doing incredible work with leather. Our handcrafted leather shoe businesses are especially strong.”
According to a January 2017 technical report on the feasibility of a Leather Research Institute by the Republic of South Africa Department of Trade and Industry, the roots of the contemporary leather industry in the country go back to the needs of Dutch and British colonialists for saddlery, harness, and boots and shoes in the 19th century. Further laying the groundwork for an ongoing industry, South Africa proved to be a vital supplier of military boots during the two Boer Wars (1880-1881, 1899-1902) and the two World Wars.
“Recently,” the report continues, “the SA leather industry has come under direct threat from the transition in the SA footwear industry, the rise and fall of the automotive seating and trim industry, and immense competition in the wet-blue and pickled sheepskin export market. The number of leather tanneries has declined in South Africa since the late 1980s, and approximately twenty-five leather processors have closed or been restructured.”
The 2017 report additionally noted the difficulties of entrepreneurial activity in the South African leather industry. Challenges include high costs of capital, low margins, uncertain cash flow, and unstable prices for raw materials. And while industry employment began to decline in 2001, it began to recover somewhat around 2012. The country’s exotic export market might be of greatest interest to American readers.
In 2016, South Africa had more than eighty active crocodile farms that were served by three tanneries. Some four hundred ostrich cooperatives provided hides to two tanneries. Shop Talk! editor Misty Shaw says that the magazine’s parent company, Burns, the world’s oldest western retail business still operated by descendants of its founder, acquires some of its exotic leathers from South Africa.
An October 2019 report on the country’s leather and hide industry, on the website AgriOrbit, produced by South Africa’s agricultural news outlet Plaas Media, identified additional and ongoing challenges. These included an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the province of Limpopo. Others were hide wastage, increased use of synthetic leathers, and significant loss of South African automotive leather business to India, Eastern Europe, and Brazil. And despite an increase in South African shoe manufacturing, some 73% of the country’s retail shoe business was in imports, the great majority of that figure being inexpensive imports from China.
A government program to counteract these difficulties helped the country’s leather industry to expand by more than 13% from 2010 to 2013, and the leather and footwear export sector grew by a whopping 167% from 2010 to 2016. Proactive government agencies, academic initiatives, and the creativity of younger leatherwork artists like Arran Wood will continue to grow South Africa’s leather industry.
Along with Yellowstone, Arran draws inspiration from the TV show Vikings. According to imdb.com, the program “transports us to the brutal and mysterious world of Ragnar Lothbrok, a Viking farmer and warrior who yearns to explore – and raid – the distant shores across the ocean.” And like Yellowstone, Vikings features a strong horse culture.
“The style of tack I make is difficult to define,” says Arran. “But it falls into medieval/Celtic themes. I take a lot of inspiration from historical and fantasy designs and patterns. Also, I listen to a lot of Nordic artists when I’m creating leather pieces, such as Forndom, Wardruna, and Kalandra. And along with Vikings, I’m also influenced by the show The Last Kingdom, in addition to seeing the work of many other creators on Instagram, which serves as my main platform for marketing my work. So, my main focus in leatherwork is on making bridles and other lightweight horse-riding equipment. But I only do custom orders and almost never keep stock for sale.”
In terms of leather Arran typically works with veg tanned hides obtained from a local wholesaler. “But I’m not too particular where I get the leather as long as the quality and thickness of the tan are correct for the project.”
At present, the young South African artist is immersed in architectural studies at a local university and only producing a few pieces per year. “Once I have completed my degree, I think I am going to pick up my leather business properly again as I will have much more time on my hands. I hope to be able to expand my work into acting and television, even though I have been less active over the last year or two. My long-term goal is to get my work onto the screen as that is where I feel it lives best, in fictional programing. For example, I have supplied a few sets to some stunt shows such as The Knights of Middle England.”
And even though he’s halfway around the world, Arran’s experience echoes that of so many American makers with whom I have spoken. “There is definitely a calming aspect to working with leather,” he says. “I really love finding that headspace and getting into the work. I usually put on a good audio tape or podcast and settle into my work. It can go on for hours, and it’s very soothing…. For me, it’s all about working with someone who has a vague idea for a unique piece that I can bring to life. And the people I work with are more like friends than clients. I enjoy staying in contact with them. It’s sad for me if I sell an order and then never see or hear back from the client again. For me it’s much more than just a client and money. It’s much more like I’m making a friend and we work together to bring their dreams into leather.”
SIDEBAR: South Africa!
Arran’s description of his homeland reminds me a bit of the kitchen-sink topography of Texas. “We have mountains, flats, arid, wet, snow, floods, ocean, an amazing sky and forests. It’s a beautiful place to live and visit! In the Eastern Free State where I live, we have the most beautiful clouds and skies. We get massive storms but also clear and bright days. The best thing is to see the enormous clouds reaching for the heavens on a sunny day.”
Of the nation’s tongues he says, “We have eleven official languages which is why we are called the Rainbow Nation. Our national anthem is sung using five of the languages! It’s very cool but also difficult to memorize all the parts. Our flag is also based on the concept of multiple cultures combined with the many colors. And while English is the home tongue of a small percentage of people it is the base language that everyone can speak. Our school systems and businesses are run on it. I myself can only speak two of these languages, but I still understand all the cultures and can at least greet people in their language.”
Arran’s parents homeschooled him and his sister. “I think this was to my benefit as I was able to explore creative endeavors and had a more unconventional approach to education because so much of it has been self-taught through books. The farm that we moved to have many horses and this was where I learned to love them. And that love eventually inspired my leatherwork.”