You’ve likely seen them busking around town with a washboard and a guitar at some point in time. Impossible to forget once you’ve heard them, The Vaudevillian is a 1930s-style jugband who plays ragtime blues.
But lately, the husband and wife duo, Norah Spades and Kitchener native Brendan Stephens have been focusing most of their time on crafting traditionally made custom leather goods.
It all started nearly three years ago in a little log cabin in the middle of the woods in Nova Scotia.
They aptly named the business Woodstove Leather Goods, “because we had just a wood stove in the cabin to keep us warm, and that's how we dried our leather,” Spades said.
“We had done leather work as a hobby prior, like a year or so before that. But [that’s when] our leather work started taking off,” she said. “It’s a dying artform. We’re trying to breathe new life into it.”
All of their goods are made entirely by hand: hand cut from the hide, hand carved, hand tooled, hand painted, hand stitched and hand assembled.
They had initially picked it up as a hobby because they both wanted their own leather items.
“Brendan wanted to have a leather suspenders set, and I wanted a flask with my name on it,” Spades said. “So we started looking around at the price points, and we kept saying we thought we’d be able to create it ourselves, and we kind of pushed ourselves to the challenge.”
It took a lot of trial and error, but eventually, they found the perfect balance, picking up skills from friends and old crafting journals from the 70s and 80s.
Both Spades and Stephens can make any leather good from start to finish, but they prefer to split the work in half based on their skillset and what they enjoy. Stephens does what Spades refers to as more utilitarian tasks, making each product good enough to last a lifetime, while she focuses on the more artistic elements.
With something like a guitar strap, for instance, Stephens will cut a huge piece of cowhide to create a leather template. Spades then prepares the leather and carves the design onto it with a swivel knife.
The next step is to level the leather, which she says is done using only vintage tools they get from antique markets because of the quality. Then she dyes and carefully paints on the design before handing it back over to Stephens.
“I'll take a tool called a wing divider and it will scratch a line on each side, then I use a stitching chisel and chisel holes into the leather,” Stephens said.
After, he glues the leather onto a piece of suede, cutting it to size before using two needles and wax thread to hand-stitch the pieces together.
This process is, of course, incredibly time consuming. So much so that Stephens said they typically don’t like to count the hours. However, they said a leather bag might take around 30 hours to complete.
There are benefits to spending countless hours working on one item, though. As full-time musicians, their leather business has sustained them throughout the pandemic. But this work also doesn’t leave much time for ruminating on the doom and gloom of the world, something they found especially helpful during the height of the pandemic.
“It’s been crucial to our mental health to be creatively stimulated and fulfilled artistically,” Spades said. “Without leather craft, I think we would have suffered mentally, not just financially.”
“Of course the pandemic has been absolutely devastating across the board for pretty well everybody other than Jeff Bezos, but we were really able to focus fully on leathercraft because prior to the pandemic, we were just doing it when we weren’t in our busy seasons of gigs. During the pandemic, we were able to put every hour that we had into it, so we’ve really levelled up tenfold compared to what we would have been before,” she said.
Over the past two years, their business has really picked up -- though Spades said they’re not sure how, as they haven’t done any advertising.
They get a “crazy amount” of orders each month from around the world, so many that it’s hard to keep track.
“Right now, we’ve got 39 custom orders on the order docket, and we never get the list below 25,” she said, which keeps them busy, working about six days a week.
Stephens said the process has been “tedious in a good way,” because you have to be careful not to make mistakes, whereas in live music, you can make mistakes and just move on.
They’re drawn to the work as well because of the sentiment behind the objects they design.
“Why do people get leather goods? As a gift for someone to last a lifetime or be passed on. So for example, someone may get a wallet with an inscription to their loved one. It’s usually something really precious,” Spades said.
Their business also fits in nicely with their overall ethos and lifestyle: it’s easily portable, and you don’t need much room to do it. All the tools they use are small enough to fit in a toolbox for when they “hit the road,” which they inevitably do in their RV when the warmer months roll around.
They are planning on recording a record sometime this year, but Spades said they want to get back to the music first, back into the swing of things.
"So as soon as we're back to playing and well oiled and we'll be recording again," she said.