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The Dream Workshop 2.0

Now some of you may remember a blog I posted last year about my less then ideal workshop. Although it was lacking in a number of areas, it did serve me well and I found ways round lots of the challenges it presented me with. However, if the last year has done anything for us, I think it has taught us that we really need to focus on what truly is important to us. I also think it has shown us that we should do the things we want to do while we still can. Now before you go and get excited, no I am not doing anything wild like jumping out of a plane or travelling the world, I just updated my workshop!

The past year has given us all lots of time to think, and as you can imagine, I have spent even more time than usual stuck in my workshop. A number of issues have been bubbling away under the surface for a while now but what really cemented the need for change was inviting my sister into the workshop for a day. I have recently had a lot of people asking me about whether I offer leatherwork training, and I thought I could test this by inviting my sister in for the day to make a belt. It quickly became apparent, that although I have managed to adapt to my set up, it really isn’t ideal. As I sat and watched her struggle to punch holes the only advice I could give is “The wobbly bench doesn’t help as it adds too much vibration, you could try punching them on the floor?”

I suppose it’s also the time of year where we are reflecting on the last year and thinking about our goals for the new year. It goes without saying that the coronavirus pandemic this year has definitely stopped us all from doing the things we would have liked to. Personally, I believe that 2020 was a great learning curve for us in so many ways and I have decided that 2021 is going to be the year to “go big or go home!”

 

So, stage one of the new motto was setting up a better workshop. This mainly consisted of a proper work bench and a change to the layout. The new workbench not only allows me to work in a standing position but provides a much larger working area (which means I no longer have to cut new hides on the floor!) It also provides much better storage for my leather and tools which means they are all easier to access. The new workbench is also positioned along a different wall so I have more light from the window, plus I can watch the squirrels skipping along the fence! I’ve also added a few more practical additions such as a whiteboard for my “to-do” lists and order details and some hooks for hanging up bridles and other leatherwork. (The hooks were made for me by “Horseshoe Hearts” using my horse Victor’s old shoes.) There are a few small additions I plan to make over the coming months, and it still isn’t the idealistic workshops of Instagram dreams, but you know what I blooming love it!

Looking on to the new year, I shall have to remind myself of my new motto. I don’t for one minute believe that when the clock strikes midnight on the 31st, all of our troubles will disappear. I am sure we all know that this pandemic is far from over. However, this is just another challenge life has thrown at us and instead of letting it defeat us we should look for the small window for opportunities we CAN find in these dark times and grab them by the horns!

Happy New Year!

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Making small changes

Global warming. Something we are all very familiar with. While it’s difficult to completely transform your ways of living, there are so many small changes we can make to just do a little better! We are all getting very used to reducing our single use plastics, recycling and reducing emissions but we can also be selective about who we buy products from.

As a business I feel conscious that I should set an example and I am always working to ensure my products are as sustainable as possible. For example, my current packaging comprises of 100% recycled tissue paper and recycled cardboard boxes. These materials are perfect packaging, storing and transporting my products and can be recycled again once they are no longer needed.

In terms of the products themselves, I am always being asked about the sustainability of leather as a material. Although there is a fair amount of controversy on this subject, I do my best to keep up to date with the news. The majority of the leather I use is cow hide which is taken as a by-product of the meat industry. Now the tanning processes of leather do have the potential to be damaging to the environment as harmful chemicals are often used and not always disposed of responsibly. I always try to opt for veg-tanned leather because rather than using chemicals, the leather is tanned using plant matter. These materials can be recycled after the tanning process and have little impact on the environment.

I do my best to know where my leather is coming from too. Personally, I think that English leather is the best, but I also prefer to buy English leather to reduce emissions from transport. I tend to buy from only a couple of suppliers, so I know where my materials are coming from.

Furthermore, if high quality leather is used and looked after, it can last a really long time. I think a great small change we can all make is to buy higher quality items, so we only have to buy once, thus reducing the amount of waste we produce. Even when leatherwork starts to become worn, it can often be repaired or have sections replaced rather than needing a whole new item.  The added benefit of using genuine veg-tanned leather is that it’s biodegradable, so when it finally is time to throw it away, it isn’t going to have the same impact on the environment as a synthetic version.

Now I do appreciate that some people would rather not use leather and I totally respect that. I am trying to keep up to date with alternative materials or “vegan” leathers. As far as I am aware, at the moment there isn’t any appropriate alternative material. The majority of synthetic leathers are plastic based, and I think we are all trying our best to reduce the amount of plastics we use. The processes used to create some of the plastic polymers used in synthetic leather, can be extremely damaging to the environment and obviously plastic materials cannot biodegrade so the waste has more of an impact too.

That said, I know that there is a lot of work going into developing new alternatives. From using materials like plants to make synthetic leathers, to growing leather in labs. I am doing my best to keep up with new ideas and look forward to trialling some of these materials once they are more readily available. However, for now, I’m happy to stick with the real stuff!

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National Saddlery Competition 2020

Well it’s that time of year again; the days are shorter, the weather is horrible, and all the saddlers in the country flock to London for the annual National Saddlery Competition.

This year was another big year for me. After signing off from my apprenticeship in 2019, it was time for me to collect my completion certificate, officially marking the end of my training as a saddler. As some of you may remember, when I signed onto my apprenticeship back in 2017, I was presented with my portfolio by HRH The Princess Royal, master of the Worshipful Company of Saddlers. So, what better way to bring things to an end than being presented with my completion certificate by Her Royal Highness. It feels both sad and exciting, the end of an era but also the start of the next chapter.

I also chose to enter the competition itself. I decided to go a little wild this year and enter the President’s Choice class. This class is a little different to the other classes, which consist mainly of saddles and bridlework. This year the class was for any leather item with a nautical theme, in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrim Fathers’ voyage on the Mayflower. The only other guidelines given were that it should be made using traditional hand skills. I “ummed and ahed” about what I could enter but by Christmas I had come to the decision of making a lighthouse! Giving myself a bit of time off over Christmas meant that I then had two weeks to create a lighthouse out of leather.

I tried to keep to a fairly simple design for my lighthouse, and luckily, I had both some red and some white leather left over from previous projects. This coupled with a lovely hexagonal marmalade jar made for a lovely traditional looking striped lighthouse. I added a few fun little details like windows, doors with little gold doorknobs and a little wind vane on the top. Thanks to a little help from Dad, I was able to run a light up the lighthouse into the jar which was switched on via a little switch hidden in some leather rocks.

When we attended the competition at Saddlers Hall, it was fantastic to see the huge number of entries across the classes. The standard of work was excellent, and it really is a wonderful showcase for the trade. I was absolutely thrilled to be given a premium award for my entry. These awards are given to entries that demonstrate excellent craftsmanship and to receive one on my first entry in an open class has given me a well needed boost for the start of the year!

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The Dream Workshop!

As much as I try not to be, I am a social media fan and spend a fair bit of time scrawling through posts and pictures. Recently though, it’s been getting me down. I follow lots of other small businesses and see a lot of beautiful workspaces; picturesque views, clever storage solutions and rustic furniture and equipment plucked straight from a showroom.

 

I couldn’t help but feel a bit bleak looking around my workshop. To start my business, I moved back in with my parents. The room I work in used to be the children’s playroom so hidden in a cupboard you can find old pieces of Playmobil, the sofa wears a pair of rather fetching shoes (apparently a child’s dream…!) and the view from my window is of a rather dull fence. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very grateful for my parents’ support and workshop space help, but it’s hardly the stuff of Instagram dreams…

 

It got me thinking about social media in general. Posting pictures of items I’m making and of the things I am doing is a crucial way of getting my name out there. When I’m taking a picture of a lead I’ve made for example, I do take some time angling it in a way that will make it look best, accessorising with some autumnal leaves or putting it on an attractive live model (thanks Beano and Ivy!). I’m selling things that I have worked hard on and am proud of, so always want (and want others) to see them in the best light possible. And sadly, that’s not often with the backdrop of my workshop.

 

I can’t be the only one wanting to make things look the best they can on social media. I am seeing beautiful workshops – who knows if the people posting those pictures even work in those perfect surroundings?! A lovely hut in the country might be beautiful, but maybe can only be an efficient and comfortable workspace for a maximum of a couple of hours since heating is limited and that rustic stool is incredibly uncomfortable!  They could all be in similar workshops to me, a room that’s used for multiple purposes, just altering their online image to something more idealistic.

 

It goes deeper than just businesses portraying products in a certain way. We all have that friend brunching with cliché avocado toast for the third time in a week, or that couple we know who are on holiday for what seems like the hundredth time – we can’t let this make us feel inadequate, we are only getting a glimpse into their lives, not the whole story.

 

So this blog is a quick reminder to not let the beauty of certain images make us feel less worthy – I may work in a small, crammed room that isn’t the perfect workshop, but it doesn’t stop me creating some beautiful things.  Don’t measure yourself by what others ‘appear’ to be doing; be proud of who you are, how you work and what you believe in. I’m going to continue to be proud of my workshop – so keep an eye out, you may be seeing more of it in the future!

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“How did you become a saddler?”

A question I get asked a lot, is “how did you get into saddlery?” The short story I tell people is that I stumbled across is by accident while trying to avoid going to university. That may sound like a bit of a joke, but it is the truth!

During my time at school I always did well academically, what I struggled with was motivation in subjects I wasn’t passionate about. Unfortunately, at school the advice we got was all based around university. Alternative routes weren’t really covered and there was a bit of a stigma around not going to university. So, I did as I was advised, looked at university courses that interested me and applied to universities.

A Levels are a stressful time, with the pressure of making important life decisions and being told that your exam results will determine your future. While I knew I didn’t WANT to go to university, I was constantly being told that it was normal to feel anxious about it and it was the best thing to do. I was fortunate to get an unconditional offer to study at university which took the pressure off my exams, and then I decided to defer my place for a year to give myself time to think without losing my place.

I am fortunate enough to say that my parents have always been very supportive. While they have always said I should do something that makes me happy, they also didn’t want me to miss out on opportunities or settle for something just because it was the “easy option”. The deal was, if I was going to turn down my place at university, I needed to have something else lined up. So, from the moment I left school, I was on a mission to find my way out of university!

During this year I also planned to do a lot of horse riding while I had so much free time. The horse I had at the time was an interesting crossbreed, which meant that he didn’t really fit the conventional, shop bought equipment. I was planning on competing a fair bit, so he needed to have a smart, well-fitting saddle and bridle. This is when my mum suggested I find a saddler to custom make them for me, and it was like someone had switched on a light-bulb! It sounds so stupid when I think about it now but somehow, I had never even thought about saddlery being a career, let alone a potential career option for me! Two of my greatest passions were horses and crafts, and this seemed to combine both.

Luckily, as I was on a gap year, I had far too much free time! This gave me time to research saddlery as a career option, but all my research pretty much brought me back to the same place. The saddlery world isn’t that large, and the only way to qualify as a saddler is to find an apprenticeship or go to college. I was lucky enough to find a couple of Master Saddlers to chat to, who gave me some brilliant advice and before I knew it, I had turned down my place at university and enrolled on the Saddlery course at Capel Manor College.

The further in I got, the more my passion for Saddlery and Leatherwork grew. Once I completed my course at Capel Manor, I was incredibly lucky to be one of the three students that year that was offered an apprenticeship with a master saddler. Feeling more determined and inspired than ever, I packed my bags and moved myself, and my lovely horse Victor, 150 miles from home to Shropshire. It was something I never thought that I would have been brave enough to do, but my passion for saddlery and leatherwork just seemed to overwrite everything!

After completing my qualifications in Shropshire, I decided to move back home to Hertfordshire and set up Lucy Ellis Leatherwork. This has given me the time to work on some of my own designs and the chance to be a bit more creative with my work. Although the reason I chose saddlery was largely due to the equestrian aspect, I have found a passion for all sorts of leatherwork and really enjoy making and repairing all sorts of items. While I don’t know what the future holds, at least for now I can say that I genuinely enjoy my work.

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The Hertfordshire County Show 2019- Worry and Self Doubt

As I am sure most of you know (because I’ve been constantly posting about it on social media for the past few weeks), last weekend I had a trade stand at the Hertfordshire County Show. I’ve been going to the Herts Show almost every year for just about as long as I can remember, and as it’s just 10 minutes down the road, it seemed like the obvious debut for my business.

Leading up to the show, I tried my best to get as prepared as I could. As most of my work is bespoke and made to measure, it was quite tricky to work out what to take. I just had a feeling that whatever I made wouldn’t be the right size for anyone who was interested in buying it. In the end I just tried to make some basic items and then a few of my own favourite styles so that people could see a few of the options available. I could then just take orders for bespoke work if people couldn’t find the sizes or styles they wanted.

Something I hadn’t prepared myself for, was the psychological impact of taking my work to the show. Now that probably sounds a bit dramatic, but for me it wasn’t just about the show, it felt like another launch of my business! Anyone who knows me will know that I am a perfectionist and very self-critical. While I find this helps me to maintain a certain standard and always strive to do better, it does also create huge amounts of self-doubt. The products I took with me, have effectively been in the making for 4 years and are very personal to me. The thought of laying them out on a table to be judged by anyone who walked past was terrifying.

Recently I have been watching a lot of the “TED talks” on YouTube. If you aren’t familiar with these, get on YouTube now and have a watch! I started watching them for business tips and inspiration but actually they have helped me a lot with everyday life. One of the notable messages I have tried to take from the talks, is to try not to stress about the things that are out of my control. Everyone has different likes and dislikes, and there is no way to please everyone. Therefore, I just tried to tell myself, if people like my products that’s great, but if people don’t like my products that’s fine too, its just their opinion and they are entitled to that.

Keyrings- Stamped words

The show itself actually went rather well. It was really nice to meet some people who were interested in my work. There were also plenty of people who clearly weren’t interested in my work, which was fine, I know it’s not personal! I was lucky enough to win a prize for my trade stand and a 3rd place prize for my entry into the Saddlery Competition there. I entered the box work class, and this was my first time in the open classes up against all the master saddlers. I decided to just make something a bit fun, so I created a dog poo bag holder which clips onto my dog leads.

I’d like to say a big thank you to everyone who helped me with all the preparations for my stall. Also, my lovely friend Jessica who stayed and helped me all weekend and Ivy, one of my canine models, who came to the show on Sunday to model some collars. But most importantly, a big thank you to everyone who came over to chat to us over the course of the weekend.

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Tack Safety Checks

Ok so a slightly more boring topic but this is just so important! Now let’s be honest, all equestrians know there are risks and must have at least a tiny bit of crazy to be riding horses. Ideally though, you don’t want to be having any accidents, especially ones that are easily preventable and before you even get onto the fun stuff!

It is SO easy to perform basic safety checks on your own tack, and it takes only a few minutes. I generally do mine when I’m cleaning my tack as you are already taking things apart and having a good look.

Firstly, you should just look at the overall appearance of your tack. Has anything changed? This may seem obvious but when you’re looking at it every day, it can be easy to miss things. Has anything changed shape? Is there a new dent or wrinkle in your saddle that you haven’t seen before? Leather will change in appearance over time and most likely it is nothing to worry about but if in any doubt, please ask a qualified saddler.

Next, stitching! There is A LOT of stitching in your bridle, saddle and all your other bits of tack and as the old saying goes “a stitch in time saves nine.” You should check all the stitching on your tack and if you notice sections of stitching are coming loose or rotting you should get it seen to as soon as possible (any qualified saddler should be able to help you out). Pay particularly close attention to girths, the girth straps on your saddle and stirrup leathers.

The next thing you want to check for is cracks in leather. Unfortunately, cracked leather cannot be saved and is at considerable risk of breakage, but it could be replaced. The most common place cracks occur is around holes and often next to buckles. If the leather is very dry and about to crack, this is a good sign that is has dried out and is in need of some oil!

Another sign of wear is when holes start to stretch. This is most commonly seen on girth straps and stirrup leathers. Slight stretching in leather is normal but if the holes are considerably elongated the strap becomes at risk of breakage and is no longer safe. Stretching can also cause the leather to become dangerously thin in areas of wear. Check the thickness of the strap all the way along and if it has become particularly thin in one place it is time to replace!

Remember that if in doubt, it is always best to ask! Most qualified saddlers will be happy to advise you on whether your tack is safe or in need of repair. Even if a repair is needed, surely the cost of safety is worth it!

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BETA International 2019

It’s that time of year again! Last week I took a trip back to the NEC in Birmingham for the annual trade show BETA international. It was my 5th visit to the show but unlike previous years, this time I wasn’t there to compete in the trainee saddler competition, resulting in a much more relaxing day! This gave me the time to explore the show a bit and see some of the new exciting products that will be launched into the equestrian trade this year.

The highlight for me is always the equestrian fashion show. Being a horse owner and rider myself, it is always interesting to see some of the new styles in equestrian wear but really, it’s just fantastic entertainment watching a group of models performing dance routines in body protectors and riding hats!

I spent most of my time in the Saddlery area which was considerably larger than previous years. It was wonderful to see Saddlery Businesses from all areas of the Saddlery showcasing their skills. One saddler had gone all out to draw in the crowds and made a multi-coloured unicorn saddle, complete with horn! I think it goes without saying that it turned a few heads and showed some incredible creativity and skill.

I also volunteered to demonstrate some stitching skills at the Saddlery Training Centre stand for a few hours. It’s always nice to chat to people who are considering saddlery as a career option.

Last week I also collected my new splitter machine who I have affectionately named Stanley, or “flat Stanley”. For those who aren’t familiar with a splitting machine, the best way to describe it is like a pasta machine but instead of two rollers it has one roller and then a huge blade on top. When a strap of leather is pulled through it splits the substance down (making it flatter…hence the name.) I was lucky enough to get my hands on a really old machine, as a general rule with saddlery tools the older the better! The thing about old tools is the tend to have quirks so Stanley does have the habit of splitting more off the right-hand side than the left. I’ll just have to make some small adjustments but it’s quirks like this that make me love the craft even more. No two pieces are the same and every little piece of leather has had some time put into it!

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Success at The National Saddlery Competition 2019

Every year Saddlers from all over the world flock to Saddlers Hall in London for the annual National Saddlery Competition. This year I was attending to officially receive my certificate of completion for my apprenticeship. It was a really nice way to round off 4 years of hard work. I was also fortunate enough to be awarded a bursary award on completion of my apprenticeship in recognition of my efforts.

Being THE competition in the Saddlery calendar, I also decided to enter a couple of classes. As it was the last year I was able to enter the trainee classes, I though I would make the most of it. I made a stallion inhand bridle for the trainee bridlework class, and then after a last-minute decision, I made a crupper and dock for the trainee harness class the day before I had to post my work (not stressful at all!)

Well it all turned out to be worthwhile as I got second place in the harness class and was given a premium award. Even better then that, my stallion bridle was awarded first place in its class and was also given a premium award. It’s obviously a great feeling to win awards like that but even better when you really feel you’ve earnt it with the hard work and time you’ve put in.

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Final Week of College

This week was my final week attending The Saddlery Training Centre in Salisbury as part of my apprenticeship training. It was a week of mixed emotions…

I actually completed all my compulsory exams at the beginning of the year but in order to make the most of my training I decided to try and squeeze in an extra exam! I chose to also do my Level 3 harness exam so that I could have the highest possible training in all three areas (bridle making, saddle making and harness making). In order to pass this exam I had to do a written test and a practical exam showing what skills I had learnt. We also have to have pre-made items and for this exam I had to make an entire set of show harness.

As i’m sure you can imagine there is an awful lot of pieces that make up a full set of harness and all the items had to be lined (two layers of leather) so i had A LOT of stitching to do. Therefore, in order to get it all done I had to do plenty of stitching in my own time. The week started a little stressful, trying to make sure my harness was not only complete but up to exam standard. Then on Wednesday I had to sit the actual exam which was both terrifying and stressful at the same time.

Then came the other mix of emotions. Finding out I had passed my exam, so relief and joy. With the exam passed that meant my time at college was over. This brought on an overwhelming feeling of happiness and achievement, I was not going to miss driving all the way down to Salisbury every 8 weeks. However, I also feel a bit sad about it all. Over the past two years college has been a big part of my life and I have become close with the small group of apprentices I spend the week with each time I’m down. After all, we go through highs and lows together and have shared some nice evenings as well as some rather nasty illnesses!

Anyway its onward and upwards from here and I look forward to what the future holds and am grateful for the time I spent at college and the people I got to spend that time with!