Can you repair an oxen yoke? This is one of the more unexpected conversations I have had in the last year. On the whole it was quite different to what I envisaged back in January 2020.
I was home in NZ for Christmas visiting family and friends, arriving back in the UK late January 2020, just as Covid was making its presence felt. If you had asked what my intentions for the year were, I would have said “getting out and about doing lots of markets and events in and around North London, making lots of bespoke bags and commissions”.
Then just as a large commission to replace the seats and backs on a set of dining chairs dropped, we went into the first lockdown. Initially I tried working from home, but only managed a couple of days. It wasn’t really practical – I didn’t have a work bench, the tools or materials I needed. Besides the noise and mess weren’t conducive to my partner being able to work at the same time. I am fortunate, in that I work alone in a studio, so back to the studio I went.
Fortunately, many of my suppliers are able to remain open for online orders, and I can obtain the materials I need to continue working. Some supplies take a little longer than previously, and some buckles can be a bit tricky to source, but most things are available. Brexit has complicated some supply chains, but because I prefer to use locally produced materials, and UK based suppliers this has not impacted me too much.
The work on the chairs was completed, and a socially distant handover saw them returned to a very happy client. This job gave me breathing space to think about how I was going to move forward without my usual markets.
The weather was nice, and as my preferred exercise is cycling, I spent a bit of time out and about on my bicycle. The Royal Parks are often a favourite ride, but they were all much busier than normal, as were routes like the Embankment along the Thames. Long rides into the countryside were avoided, due to lack of cafes and toilets, and potential issues getting home should I have a mechanical issue. So instead, I ended up cycling around an eerily empty London. I saw new sides to the city I have called home for 30 years. Sometimes there was no one else in sight. It also gave me thinking time to consider my way forward. And sometimes I even delivered items when out for a ride.
As lockdown continued in various shapes and form over the next months, I rolled along with whatever came up. I made it to a handful of markets, but they were few and far between. When I couldn’t get out and about to sell in person, I spent a considerable amount of time online. First up was doing some training around social media and online marketing. Then it was a review of my website, making changes as necessary. This is still an ongoing process.
Muswell Hill Creatives were active in trying different online events and I took part in those. More excitingly, Amanda Stockley and I were able to complete my film in the MHC Short Film Project.
All the increased attention to my online profile paid off, with enquiries and sales through my website increasing.
The Repair Shop Effect
Many of those new enquiries were requests for repairs. I call it “The Repair Shop Effect” – the combined effect the showing of the BBC programme “The Repair Shop” at a time while many people stuck at home are having clear outs. I always love to work on repairs, well most of them anyway. Some prove a little more tricky than I think they are when taking the job on, but it always brings a smile to my face when I can bring treasured items back to a state where they can be used again.
Bags and chairs are my most frequently repaired items, but if it is veg tan leather and needs repair, I’ll happily have a go if I think I can make a good job of it.
A different “design” experience
The “in and out, shake it all about” lockdowns were disruptive in the lead up to Christmas, but I managed fill my order book to overflowing for Christmas.
When ordering a bespoke bag, the quickest way is when customers are able to visit my studio in person to go through the options – leather, thread, lining and fittings. They can see the colours, feel the textures, and all the options side by side. They really do own the process of designing their own bag. It is truly unique to them. No two customers ever make exactly the same choices.
The remote design process for new bags is a little more protracted, but it is possible. Samples of materials and paper mock-ups of bespoke bags can be sent out, style and fittings decided by email or phone/zoom calls. Trick is to use a tracked delivery system, or personal delivery if local.
I have been busy completing the overflow orders in January and February. There are a few lucky people out there with beautiful bespoke bridle leather bags to show off … when we are allowed out again!
I have a selection of orders in hand, a mix of repairs, and new commissions. All mixed up with ensuring I keep my online presence refreshed. Maybe I will even get to go away on holiday this year. Goodness knows it would be nice to get further away than I can cycle in a day!
And the yoke – yes I did!