“Leather has a fascinating way of telling a story,” says Matthew Bailey, founder of Wild Foot Leather – a small, independent workshop set in the heart of Devon. After training and working as a chef for thirteen years, Matthew began to experiment with leather craft in his spare time, before coming to the realisation he had found his calling…
Matthew Bailey is part of a new generation of leathermakers – a cohort of passionate young artisans who are reviving ancient traditions of the past with their vibrant and contemporary vision. After following his work on Instagram for quite some time, I was keen to hear about the process of transitioning from chef to leather marker in the modern age…
How It All Started
As I sat and listened to Matthew explain his craft, we sipped on mugs of freshly brewed tea and his fiance Agy attempted to quieten their effervescent Jack Russell, Otis. They share a modestly sized cottage in a quaint East Devon village and Wild Foot Leathers equally modest workshop is housed in the room next door. It’s not the largest space imaginable, but this doesn’t seem to have made any impact on quality.
‘I left school and trained to be a chef,’ Matthew explained, ‘I worked my way up in the profession for about thirteen years, but I always tried to have a hobby during these times. The kitchen can take up most of your life if you allow it. You tend to come home and read cookbooks to relax. That was great, but it reached the point when I needed something else as a distraction.’
He described the impulse that he had always felt to pick up a new skill: ‘I wanted to learn a craft that required hand tools. Then it was just a case of being realistic. You could be a blacksmith, but you’d need a forge. You could work with wood, but it requires a lot of space. Leather was probably the most realistic option in terms of what I needed. So, I literally just went for it!’
But in a world of complex hand tools, finely stitched detailing and discerning clientele – how does one ‘just go for it’?
‘There are around three decent books on leather craft and that’s about it,’ Matthew laughed, ‘Trying to get training proved to be difficult. I looked for apprenticeships but quickly realised that it would be quicker and easier to teach myself.’
It’s a slow and steady process but by his own admission, Matthew has already come along leaps and bounds in the two years he has been crafting. Working with leather has taught him a whole new set of skills, such as how to build his own brand online and how to exercise patience when working with certain materials.
‘As a chef, I always worked long hours. Working for yourself is much the same. You never stop. That part of the transition helped me. You still work long hours but you have to slow your pace down. With leather, you really have to be patient. I learned that the hard way and I made a lot of mistakes in the early days’.
Thankfully, what leathercraft lacks in literature it makes up for in community spirit. ‘There’s quite a good community of leather workers around the world’ Matthew explained, ‘I never realised just how open everyone was. I suppose you just assume that people are going to be quite secretive about their trade. But the knowledge that you can gain from talking to others is quite astonishing. I try to be the same. If someone asks me a question, I’m more than happy to help them out and keep the traditions going’.
A Growing Demand for Leatherwork
You don’t have to spend long online to see that leather goods are all the rage right now, and it’s hardly surprising when you consider the time and detail that goes into creating such beautiful products. In a world of mass-produced Chinese imports, many of us crave a return to artisanal products and accessories that are made sustainably and will stand out from the crowd. ‘I think I got into leather at a good time,’ Matthew explained, ‘people have been coveting handmade goods for quite some time.’
His customer base is varied and often discerning. Some customers draft whole wish-lists of accessories they want and Wild Foot Leather has used whole hides of leather to make products for the same client over the course of 6 months. ‘I’ve had consistent regulars for the past year,’ Matthew states proudly, ‘You don’t talk to them on a customer level, you get to know them on a more personal level. That’s really nice. Someone once said to me ‘it’s not about how many people you sell to, it’s about keeping your existing customers happy’. I can certainly see a lot of truth to that’.
Brand Building In An Online World
As well as attracting a good deal of repeat customers, Wild Foot Leather has fostered a strong community of followers online. With over 15.3k Instagram followers and an active presence on social media, I was keen to find out how Matthew has found the process of building his brand in an increasingly online world.
‘I’ve been quite lucky with the success on Instagram,’ he explained, ‘I think in January alone I took most of my orders through the platform. I don’t pay for promoted listings. I think it’s just a great visual platform for attracting customers. In the last 6 months, it has really taken off.’
Matthew admits that it can be difficult not to compare yourself to others online: ‘You’ll see fellow leather workers and assume that people will be thinking ‘his work isn’t as good as theirs‘ or vice versa. But overall it seems to be going really well. I’ve put a lot of time and effort into the Wild Foot Leather Instagram and I really don’t know why it’s become so popular!’
As well as sharing snaps of his finished wallets and belts, Matthew also shares some of his not-so-polished moments with followers. ‘I haven’t tried making Wild Foot Leather out to be anything it isn’t,’ he explained, ‘Some people give an illusion of what the industry is like, but I like to be honest. You are your brand. I like to share my mistakes as well as my best work and I think people appreciate that.’
Where The Magic Happens
The Wild Foot Leather workshop is a small but thoroughly organised space which Matthew claims ‘could be tidier’. As we walked inside he showed me some of the newer pieces he’s been working on. There were beautiful hand-stitched wallets finished with tweeds, sturdy belts and colourful key fobs. Rolls of coloured hide were stacked up against a wall and laid out on the worktop were cut out shapes of Italian leather that smelled fragrant and warm upon closer inspection (who can resist the aroma of real leather goods).
The majority of the leather used for Wild Foot creations is Italian. ‘It’s the best quality for what I make,’ Matthew explained, ‘The Italians have been doing it for so long that they arguably produce the cleanest leather. As much as I like to have some character in the grain of my leather, Italian leather is more consistent.’
He also sources some of his leather from nearby J&FJ Baker & Co in Colyton. ‘Their leather is world famous but it’s bridle leather, so it’s traditionally used for bridles for horses, belts and bags. The tannery itself is amazing. It’s the most historic place and a real eye-opener. For a leatherworker, it’s fascinating to see the traditions still being upheld.’
As we wrapped up our interview, I noticed a half-finished project sat on the worktop: an orange wallet with neat white thread work. It was stitched together so beautifully that I assumed a machine had been responsible for its creation. But no, it was all Matthews handiwork. ‘It’s just practise,’ he assured me, ‘You get used to it’.
This wallet and various other handcrafted accessories can all be purchased on the Wild Foot Leather Etsy page and prices start from as low as £10 for the simplest creations to £350 for more intricate pieces. If you would like to find out more about Wild Foot Leather, make sure you head on over to @wildfootleather for regular updates on new products and behind the scenes glimpses into Matthew’s studio.