Sunday, September 14, 2014

Call it what you want


It’s been a crazy week. My daughter went back to school (last year of her immersion Preschool!) and my son started spending full days with my mother and step-mother.  It’s wild to be in my studio without him, but I have to admit that I get a lot more done.  Oh yeah, also, Moxie & Oliver is a Martha Stewart American Made Finalist! I honestly almost cried when I saw the email.  We made it on the wildcard which means, and this may be even more incredible than being chosen by Martha, that my friends, family and fans shared the page enough to get us there.  Amazing.


Something else happened, too, that I don’t want to overlook.  I started calling myself an “artist”.  I have been up to my ears in applications and the more I write about my own work, the more I think about it, and the more I realize that what sets my work apart from other leather goods is that it has art on it.  How’d that art get there?  Well, I guess an artist must have… oh wait, yeah. I guess I’m an artist.

This may seem completely obvious to everyone else, but it wasn’t to me.  For as long as I have been working with leather I have been creating goods that are functional – bags, wallets, belts, mailboxes, pillows -  and for that reason alone I put myself in the category of “crafter.”  The division of “arts’' and “crafts” came about in the Renaissance, and in addition to industrialization of crafts, this was something that the Arts & Crafts Movement sought to undo. As a lover of the arts and virtues of the Arts & Crafts Movement, I’m not sure how I wandered so far from their teachings when it came to my own work.


So today, at a party, someone asked what I do and I said “I’m an artist.”  My husband says that this always makes people think I don’t make any money, which is fine. The other thing I’ve been asking myself recently is whether I would rather make a lot of money or make a difference in the world.  I’d rather make a difference, and by making leathergoods that have my original art on them for people to enjoy, I believe I do.  And that they will last for years and years to come helps everyone – your pocket, the resources of the world, you know, small stuff.  And I hope to further this world betterment by teaching others my craft, but that’s news for another day. 


Wednesday, September 3, 2014

What’s the Difference Between Chrome- and Vegetable-Tanned Leather?

Most people love the rich, earthy smell of leather – every time I do a show, almost everyone who comes into the booth starts with "I love the smell of leather!" But what most people don’t know is that many leather products creating that alluring aroma are chrome-tanned. Unless you’re an avid reader of the Moxie & Oliver blog, you might not know what that means for your health.

Both tanning processes give unprocessed hides the color, texture, and suppleness we expect from finished leather, but the materials and techniques used to accomplish this result are different. To enlighten a little bit further, I’d like to explain the key difference between chrome-tanned leather and vegetable-tanned leather

Elements used in the vegetable tanning solution are completely natural – such as chestnut tree bark. Vegetable tanned leather typically comes from the tannery undyed and is a light flesh color.  This is what allows me to add color and pattern to it (using water based and safe paint and dyes).

On the other hand, chrome-tanning solution is mixed from various chemicals, acids and salts. One of the primary ingredients of chrome-tanned leather solution is chromium sulphate. This chemical helps to prep the leather to accept dyes (these are also typically artificial). The color that you see in chromium tanned leather - and this is the standard leather for almost all garments and accessories - is added in the factory. It may contain lead, and sometimes it's sprayed on with spray paint, a notoriously eco-unfriendly substance. 

The vegetable tanning process has been used for thousands of years and takes up to 60 days to complete for a single piece of dyed leather. Chrome-tanning was invented in the 1800s and these hides are done in about a day. The invention of chrome-tanning allowed leather handbags, shoes, and other goods to be mass-manufactured, but it yields an inferior product. As any leatherworker will tell you; vegetable tanned leather is the finest you can buy.

Okay, I'll say it - I'm a control freak, at least when it comes to my leather. As mentioned above, chromium tanned leather is soaked in huge vats of chemicals, softened artificially, and colors are added to the leather in the tannery. This means that when the leather reaches the artist or consumer, the color the tannery added is the last color it will be. No adding colors, no adding patterns... you get what you get. Veg-tanned leather, on the other hand, comes as a light fleshy color. No color has been added, so the artist/craftsperson gets to control the colors, and add pattern (which has long been the signature of my work). Because the veg-tanned leather is closer to the leather's natural state, the colors and patterns are permanent.

I often have customers ask if my leather is "buttery soft" as though a mark of a high-quality leather is thinness and softness, when in fact, the opposite is true. Vegetable tanned leather has a smooth surface but it's far from what anyone would consider "buttery soft". The softening takes time, and you have to break it in, but it will last for a lifetime of use. And, it won't give you or your kids lead poisoning (like some chrome-tanned leathers will).  Now, isn't that the mark of a high quality product?


Growing Pains


This last week or so has been hard. I finished shooting all the pictures for the book, which means that, when combined with the finished illustrations and chapters, my part of the book is done for now.  I’ll get to review it in December, but until then it’s in my editor’s hands.

It feels good to get that off of my plate, but now that I am not distracted by the directions I’ve committed to, I’m stuck making the decision of where to go next.  In so many ways I’m in the same space as my four-year-old daughter – I want to grow up and stay a kid at the same time.  She loves helping with the dishes, and doing select things for herself, but still wants to be carried and have someone take her to the bathroom.  I want to grow my business and remain a small crafter at the same time.

We have our nomination for the Martha Stewart American Made competition up. I check neurotically to see if that red ribbon is there yet, confirming Moxie & Oliver as a finalist. I check to see how many shares we have, and am happy to see that the number keeps going up. This relentless checking has forced me to question what becoming a finalist would mean to me, and why it is so important.

Since I started Moxie & Oliver I’ve kept mostly to myself, and let the business grow organically.  I rarely, if ever, have promoted my own work, and I think this is pretty normal for artists.  But this year, I resolved to try to grow the business and one of the things that this has meant, that I certainly did not anticipate, was that I would be looking very closely at the work that other leather crafters do, and comparing it to my own.

That comparison is what has been eating at me. There are other people who make things out of leather (they don’t necessarily work the leather, by dyeing or adding pattern, etc.) who are, at a minimum, more the “Martha Stewart” style than my work is. They may be more successful, I don’t know, but they make a product that they can easily scale.  They can easily have someone else, anywhere in the world, cut and sew the leather together using their patterns. 

So I start thinking that maybe, after ten years, I’m doing the wrong thing.  Maybe the right answer is to make hipster gear in solid color leather and sell it for an ungodly amount of money.  I could hire lots of assistants, create a factory, and be a brand.  I could grow my business that way.  I could have a leather empire.

The problem is that I’m not an empress, I’m an artist.  If I start to separate my artwork from the leather it adorns, my pieces lose what makes them unique.  They lose that distinctive Moxie & Oliver quality, and I will no longer be doing what I love to do – make art.  There’s something hard-wired inside me that needs to paint bright colors and flowers on everything (according to my husband, this list also includes birds).  Whatever this drive is, I need to feed it.

Through all this comparison to the other leather crafters, in the midst of all the questioning I have done, I have realized that my work is truly unique.  There is nobody out there doing what I do, and in that sense comparing myself to people who also use leather but do something completely different with it is absurd.  I’m actually looking forward to the book coming out, and to teaching some classes locally, so that other people can learn to put their own art on leather.

I will grow my business as an artist, making my artfully distinguished leather goods.  And, I will do it with an incredible gratitude for the people who have supported me these last ten years, and who continue to support me.  You all are amazing. 




Monday, August 25, 2014

An Artist’s Wedding




This weekend we went to my stepfather’s wedding – I was a bridesmaid for the first time in my life.  I was the maid of honor even. The funny thing is that I actually did not know I was the “original bridesmaid” until the rehearsal.  She had asked me and a few other women to be involved in the wedding, but somehow it just didn’t register until Friday that I was really a part of it. And I was honored to be.

My daughter was the flower girl.  She’s four, and fortunately she got to walk down the aisle with me.  She threw those flowers way up in the air with everything she could muster.  It was hilarious.


I made the guest book – the sweet little wood grain and heart “Nice” pattern seemed totally appropriate for a Northwest outdoor wedding on an island. 

I also made some of the favors.  We made 117 of our Original Mason Jar Lanterns, also in the “Nice” pattern.  Actually, we made the straps and then sent those along.  Bride and Groom enlisted some help to assemble them – they don’t take long to put together, and it’s certainly easier to buy the jars locally than have them shipped. They looked so sweet on the tables – some filled with candles, others with flowers. 

I know I made them, but I was so excited to take ours home.  So was my daughter, as she was swinging around her lit lantern in the dark.


The other favors were little birds that my stepfather made. Each guest had a little birdy waiting on their napkin.  He’s currently working on a commission piece with many more birds – the guys waiting in the little cups are ready to be cast into plaster molds then turned into glass birds.


There’s so much emotion at a wedding, and I think I was so focused on just getting the favors and the guest book done that I wasn’t able to lose myself in the emotion of it.  But as I stood up there, with my husband and baby boy in the first row (going “mama mama mama”) all I could think was that I’d marry him again in a heartbeat.

That’s the thing that I realized once about relationships, and every once in a while it hits me again – you marry that person that you don’t ever want to be without.  On our way home my husband and I were talking about the vows that my stepdad and his new wife exchanged, and he pointed out that these were vows of people who had been through some struggles in their relationship.  And he’s right.  At 23 and 27 our vows were very different.  Our vows were silly, sweet, and made by people who hadn’t yet been through some of the rougher times of a relationship. 

I suggested that we go do a vow renewal on our 10 year anniversary (in Mexico, where we were married, and yes it’s at least partially an excuse to go back).  He asked me why, since we seem to be doing just fine on our vows.  I said it’s not the big things – I would never do anything to jeopardize our relationship – but the daily things, that make the difference.  Those are the things we need to remind each other of, and ourselves.

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I'll meet you there.”



After this weekend I’m feeling lots of love.  For the happy couple (don’t they look happy?  So super cute!), for my husband and family, and for my new family.  My grafted family tree keeps growing.



Friday, August 22, 2014

Pretend You Haven’t Heard



This weekend I’m practicing a new art – the art of “pretending I haven’t heard.”  “Pretending you haven’t heard what?” you ask.  Well, everything.  When I was pregnant with my daughter I went to my five year high school reunion, and the thing that I heard more than anything else was “I’ve been following your pregnancy on Facebook!”  When I was pregnant with my son, I posted nothing about it on Facebook, on my blog, nowhere.  When people saw me with a baby they said “Oh, I had no idea you were even pregnant!”

And that, folks, is the way it should be.  You see, telling someone you’ve been cyber-stalking them, even passively through social media is a conversation stopper.  If you already know all about my pregnancy, my business, what kind of shoes I like, and my political leanings, what do we have to talk about?  It’s much better to pretend you haven’t been watching me, and what I’ve been up to, so you can ask me about it. Then I can tell you.  And we can have a conversation.

I did a little of this practice earlier in the week when I ran into my old college roommate, who coincidentally married my middle school best friend and has a baby boy that is eight days younger than my son.  I’ve seen some of this on social media, but since I haven’t seen him in twelve or so years, I’d rather hear it from him.  He suggested a playdate for the boys after we’d spent a few minutes catching up – hopefully he meant this in a non-Seattle sort of way (which is to say, actually meant it).

Tonight I go to a rehearsal dinner for my stepdad’s wedding, and tomorrow is the wedding (now do you see why I’m posting photos of wedding favors with this post?).  I’m hoping the family and friends I haven’t seen in years will ask me what I’ve been up to, rather than assuming that they know based on what I post online.  I’ll pretend I haven’t heard, so you can tell me yourself.  Because, after all, isn’t there more to us than our social media accounts?



ps: for the wedding we made 117 Mason Jar Lanterns with the bride & groom’s initials and the wedding date.  Tired hands, awesome favors, that obviously can be used for other things! Here are some more pictures.  And they can be purchased on


nice jar 2 (375x250)blue jar 1 (375x250)

Monday, August 11, 2014

Finding a Common Ground


This morning as I was picking chard from my horse trough planters, I was flooded by reflections of the last few days.  The chard is the first thing I’ve been able to feed my family from our garden in over a year.  Last year we moved and we have no garden set up here.  Until we can get one set up – that keeps deer and bunnies out – I make do with big galvanized buckets.  They grew some beautiful chard for breakfast this morning, for which I am grateful.

The little starts were given to me by my stepmother, someone who I admire on many levels, including for her beautiful garden.  She’s someone who, as a child, I never imagined would be such an important part of my life.  I never imagined that I would come to count on her – for help with the kids, editing my book manuscript, and for emotional support, as needed.


Our relationship started to change after I moved out of the house at 18, but the dramatic changes came when my daughter was born.  It was like she finally got to play the role that she had been waiting for all along – grandmother.  My baby girl brought back memories of her children when they were little, and she shared those with me, and she embraced my little ones with a love that only grandparents can have.

This shared bond of motherhood changed me, too.  As I started to navigate through my own parenting challenges I realized that parents, and step-parents, do the best they can with the tools that they have.  Nobody is perfect, but we are all trying to do best by our children.  We’re not trying to screw them up, or scar them for life, but sometimes children enter our lives before we’ve finished sorting out our own baggage.

When I started to write this post I thought it was headed somewhere different – I thought I was going to write about the difficulties I’ve had fining a common ground in a few scenarios recently.  When I started thinking about those chard starts, and where they came from, it overwhelmed my desire to write about anything else.  My gratitude for the good relationships I have is more important, and deserves to be shared.

In the fall my tiny man (toes pictured above) will be the next of our babies to experience the wonderful grandparent care we have in our “village.”  I will be so sad to not have him in the studio with me anymore (he’s been there since he was 2 weeks old, and is now 16 months) but so thankful that he is in such loving arms,



Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Moxie & Oliver Creation Process

It all began with a search for the perfect leather belt. When artist Caitlin McNamara couldn’t find just that, the creating began. Moxie & Oliver has since expanded from a few belts to a plethora of handmade leather goods. Every piece is made completely from scratch, from beginning to end, in Caitlin’s Seattle studio.

All Moxie & Oliver pieces are made with full-grain tooling leather, which is the strongest type available, so that each item holds up for years of wear and tear. Caitlin’s signature process combines traditional leatherworking materials and modern techniques for a unique handmade experience. Every piece starts as a hyde of vegetable tan leather in a light flesh color. Vegetable tan leather uses tree bark and organic materials in the tanning process rather than chemicals. This means that it stays closer to its natural state, which allows it to retain colors and patterns in a way that chemically tanned leather doesn’t.  The vegetable tan leather used for Moxie & Oliver products comes untreated—all patterns, colors and dyes are added in the studio.

The hyde is then transformed cut into a shape using handmade patterns that are imprinted on it. Some patterns are branded onto the hyde and some are carved in. All stitching holes are hand punched then sewn together. The leather is painted and dyed in the studio, then stitched or riveted together by hand. All pieces include a protective topcoat so that the colors are permanent.

Since Moxie & Oliver began in 2004, Caitlin has been coming up with new patterns, items, and ways to explore the many uses of leather. The innovative line includes pretty much everything that can be made out of the material, including items that often come in only black, brown, or tan leather. Each piece gets softer and better with age, so you’re guaranteed to have a quality product that lasts!

Check out a video of the Moxie & Oliver process here.