Emergence of the Circle
by Gene Fowler
Throughout the American West and Southwest, the vast cathedral of space that looms and soars above the landscape inspires and humbles all who behold it. In praise of this great natural temple, the name Western Skies has been applied to everything from motels to golf resorts, insurance agencies to RV dealerships. Event venues. Jewelers. Realtors. Veterinarians. Steakhouses. Candles, contractors and campgrounds. Art galleries.
If it’s a thing that you can name, it’s under a western sky. None, however, respond to the firmament’s embrace of the earth more brilliantly than Western Skies Handmade, artist Sarah Garvey’s brand of purses and other unique leather goods based today in Arizona.
When we last checked in with Garvey, for a 2018 ShopTalk! article, she was living on a ranch in eastern New Mexico with a different last name. In the interim, she has divorced and moved with her two young kids to a small historic mining town on the Verde River in northern central Arizona. With her leather business thriving, her studio looks out on the red rocks of nearby Sedona. The historic mining towns of bustling Prescott and ghostly Jerome are also nearby, and Sarah can gaze upon the peaks of Flagstaff as well.
“I’m surrounded by national forest land,” she says. “It’s wild country and I love it.” Situated in the West, of course a number of working cattle ranches range through the area.
Sarah has made changes in her leatherwork design as well. Get to that in a minute. But first, I couldn’t help wondering if the 2018 ShopTalk! article had impacted her one-of-a-kind business in any way.
“It did,” she says. “The response was not as immediate as I’d thought it might be, but it helped me gain confidence….and that led to more people following my leatherwork. Before, I was slowly finding my niche. The article kind of helped in my own head and gave me the confidence I needed to dive deeper into my own style. I embraced that and began to be less concerned with doing what I thought other people wanted. I was also inspired to create more and to focus more on my craftmanship.”
In time, all those factors led to a more fluid process for finding new clients…. or to the discovery by new clients of Western Skies Handmade.
Sarah’s leatherwork design has also evolved. “I’d grown tired of the long rectangle and squared shapes of my purses,” she explains. “So, I began making them in circular shapes and I’ve created many, many circle purses in the last few years. People loved them right away. The circle, of course, is a shape that completes itself. And it has expanded my canvas and provided me with more space to expand my ideas. The circle allows for a greater flow of my scroll work. I don’t rely heavily on floral tooling; so, the circle creates a different layout where shapes flow like a whirlpool, instead of a straightforward S pattern snakelike flow. It provides new ways to make my designs work within a space.”
A proper foundation of confidence is an attractive feature in any field. Sarah’s increased certainty about her work has positioned her as a vanguard of what becomes popular, provided her with the ability to drive style and to help determine what’s new and trending within the leatherwork community. And, she also enjoys a level of aplomb that allows her to step back from a design element if she feels it is being overdone, whether in her own studio or elsewhere. “I’m not using Pendleton wool as much these days,” she notes, “because more people are doing that now.”
In addition to the circle purse, Western Skies Handmade has recently added an oval design. “It’s rather like a squished circle,” she says. “I like to keep things interesting design-wise and for the pieces to not look mass produced. That’s always an asset as a maker. You make little tweaks to your work, so it’s obvious that it’s not factory made. I like a clean line, but function and form are my two highest priorities. They have to work together—otherwise it drives me nuts. It’s not the easiest way to make a purse or a waist cinch, but it looks the nicest. And my clients appreciate that. The purses and other things have to be pretty. They have to have a western look, and they have to be functional, open and close easily and hold everything a woman needs.”
In Arizona, Sarah has increased online sales of her work and cut back a bit on custom orders. “I don’t keep open books,” she says, “I don’t keep a waiting line.” Instead, she announces on social media that she’s taking a handful of custom orders—about a dozen orders for a mix of purses, card pocket wallets and other items—and the order spots are filled within five minutes. In the online ready-to-ship department, Sarah’s products sell out within 30 minutes of posting.
Western Skies Handmade customers are diverse, Sarah notes. They’re not just ranch wives and not just in rural areas. “I have a number in Dallas-Fort Worth and in other large Texas cities. They’re ladies who recognize craftsmanship and appreciate a handmade piece that expresses western heritage. And they’re split between more traditional women, who like more of a classic look, and younger women, who love the traditional and classic but with pops of color and unexpected geometric details. Both groups tell me they get lots of compliments when carrying my bags. People are recognizing my style, picking out Western Skies Handmade items from a crowd.”
Sarah continues sourcing cowhide from Hermann Oak and she obtains her fringe from American Elk and Deer in Fort Collins, Colorado. Crafting leatherwork with an inquiring and searching eye, she’s also been making some of her own tools. “I buy new stamps and then file and change them. It’s another way of exploring all the possibilities that present themselves.”
In 2018, we learned that Sarah grew up in Wisconsin playing flute and piccolo and earned a music degree. Today, she plays in her small town’s community band and sound art informs her leatherwork in a subtle, yet profound manner. “The flow of my design style and my tooling are very influenced by my classical music training,” she explains. “As my scrollwork grows and then tapers, I can almost hear the crescendo and the gradual softening of lines of music. And, as a result, it occurs to me that my leatherwork has to ‘sound’ right. It has to flow smoothly and seamlessly.”
Sarah has also cut back on the number of shows she attends each year, appearing mostly at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. And she’s not sure about making it this year or not. Still, after the long COVID shut-down, she had a great time at the most recent Southwest Leather Workers Trade Show in Prescott, Arizona. “A big highlight of the show was catching up with many of my suppliers. I spent all day Saturday of the show in the Leather Wranglers booth with Paul and Rosa Zalesak. I demoed their swivel knives and helped other leatherworkers that stopped by to shop. I helped them pick out the right size barrel/blade combo. It was fantastic to talk to so many other makers, young and old, both those who are relatively new to leather and experienced alike. I’ve used Paul and Rosa’s swivel knives for years and they have always been so kind and supportive, so it was a real treat to be able to spend time with them and hear Paul talk in depth about the technical specifics and history of their business.”
Sarah also visited with Ralph and Cheril Reis the producers of the Southwest Leather Workers Trade Show and the Rocky Mountain Leather Trade Show, also publishers of the Leather Crafters and Saddlers Journal. “We talked about many things, including the ever-increasing benefits of social media and the possibility of my teaching classes at future shows, along with other opportunities.”
She also got to talk with John Sollo of American Elk and Deer, her longtime source for deer, bison and elk. “American Elk and Deer is always my first stop at the shows,” Sarah says. “I miss living close enough to visit his warehouse and look forward to catching up with him each year.”
The Western Skies Handmade proprietor adds, “The same can be said for so many other vendors at the shows. It can be like visiting a massive family reunion, with people coming together from all over the country. After so many years in a relatively small niche industry, suppliers and other companies I’ve depended on for years have slowly become more like acquaintances and friends….and I love that.”