Back in February, we shared a blog with you called The Secrets Behind Making Your Handmade Leather Sporran. Just like with our other artisans, we asked Arnold a number of questions about himself and the process of creating these pieces of art. Arnold has admitted that he has never done this sort of writing before and has stepped out of his comfort zone to share with us. We truly honor his courage and honesty! Thank you so much for sharing with us, Arnold!
Grab a dram, sit back and have a gander at his story.
1. Tell us a little about yourself Arnold. Where are you from and how large of a family did you have?
I was born in 1954, delivered by my grandmother, on a small island off the coast of Newfoundland called Silver Fox Island. This is where my ancestors on my father's side settled and homesteaded for over 100 years. I am the third of seven siblings; 4 boys and 3 girls. Resettlement from the remote islands off the coast of Newfoundland had been going on since the early 50s, so in 1961, when I was 7 years old, we were one of the last families to resettle to mainland Newfoundland.
Credit: Library and Archives Canada. Copyright: Government of Canada 1961. A house being moved by floating it from Silver Fox Island, Bonavista Bay, to Dover, Newfoundland.
As a child, I spent most of my time with my father and grandfather learning to knit fishing nets, out with them in the boat hauling salmon nets, lobster pots, etc. Fishing was the cash crop. My father, along with his brothers, would sail to Labrador in their schooner every summer to fish northern cod and return in the fall. They also would haul general cargo in their ship to little outports around the coast of Newfoundland. My grandfather was a master wooden boat builder. He could build a boat from the plans in his head. Using carpenter tools was a part of my childhood, watching him build and teaching me how to use tools, helping out sometimes. My grandmother Feltham was a cobbler, which is what I started out doing when I started my business. (She died in 1962.) I never knew that she was a cobbler until recently. She had given up the trade long before I was born. My mother was a great seamstress and she made most of our clothing. My grandfather, (Collins) on my mother's side, was in the lumber business in Hare Bay. They operated sawmills using water power and steam at first, then later with motors.
Newfoundland Sawmill in Craigvinean, Scotland, n.d. Courtesy of the Heritage Society of Grand Falls-Windsor, Grand Falls-Windsor, NL
Sawmill in Lower Shoal Harbour. Photographer unknown
So you see, I was born into a family of "doers" on both sides. I had to tell you about my parents and grandparents because they had the knowledge and good work ethics that made me who I am. I am always challenging myself to do better. I would not use the word can't. If I told you that making lots of money was not my goal, you'd probably be laughing by now and saying that is hard to believe because everybody wants lots of money. I am very financially disciplined and use what little money I make wisely.
My father was a self-taught mechanic. He was one of the best and he taught me to use his tools as well. My parents and grandparents taught me how to survive and live off the land, a skill which I put to use later in life. I, along with my son and partner, homesteaded for over 25 years growing many kinds of vegetables organically. My animals were free to roam and eat whatever grew wild. I also did a little trapping and did taxidermy for cash, of which my lifestyle demanded very little. I cut my own logs and built my own house. I built a wood stove out of truck rims that heated my house and my water. I also built my own wooden boat from materials I cut locally. I guess you could say that my skills were bred in me.
2. When did you first get introduced to leather working and who taught you the tricks of the trade?
All my business skills are self-taught. A lot of my products are derived from a customer describing what they want to be made and I then built them from there. Before I started in the business, I lived for a year in Labrador and worked on the docks at Goose Bay as a Stevedore. To combat the long nights, I started making leather products for my family as Christmas gifts. It was just a hobby. My plan was to start a construction company with my brother who was also my best friend. Tragedy struck and he was killed, so I turned my hobby into a business in 1980 and called it “Arnold's Shoe Repair & Leather Work”. It was started in a small room in the basement of my house in Dover with a $0 budget and all done by hand. I would borrow money from family to buy materials to fill an order, pay it back and borrow again until I could finally bank enough to have a small amount of working capital. I built my first finishing machine for polishing and sanding using discarded washing machines.
My first stitching machine was a curved needle stitcher that was dug out of the dirt. It belonged to an old cobbler named Jack Kidney who operated a cobbler business in St John's in the 50s-60s until it burned down. It cost me $125.00. I restored it over the winter and got it working. In my early years trying to get established and not affording any kind of transportation, I would hitchhike all over NL with a few samples taking orders and mailing them out. Most of the time, for a place to sleep, I would stay with family and friends. Later when I could afford a car I would set up at craft/festivals shows and sell my wares. Later I changed the name to “The Leather Shack” and then to “NFLD Leather Products”. In 1995 I became NL Leather Products Inc.
3. Do you have any Scottish ancestry in your background?
My mother's maiden name is Collins. I understand that there is a Scottish connection there. I was told this by my mother, who is now 88 years old. I also have aboriginal ancestors on my mother's side as well.
4. Can you tell us a little about the process of crafting these sporrans?
I have only made three kinds of sporrans, this one being one of the third kind. The other two were made from seal fur/leather because the customers wanted something that spoke of Newfoundland/Labrador so they chose seal fur. This sporran is made of 100% cow leather.
Based on the pictures and measurements provided, I first made a couple of samples. There were some changes to be made to get exactly what the customer liked. I got it right on the third try. Then the template was made. Leather was cut by hand, holes were punched and then hand-laced to give the look of the era. The buttons were made from the choice of local trees.
5. Add anything else you feel you would like to say about your hobbies or passions, etc.
My other hobbies consist mainly of restoring. I also weld and work with iron. I have designed and built machinery that I use in my shop today. At this moment I am restoring an old make and break engine from the 50s, and a wooden boat also from the 50s. I love working with wood. I collect and restore old heritage furniture etc. I'm a nature lover. Although I am a hunter-gather, I only take what is needed. I do not take for granted the privilege I have to hunt my own food. I am an organic gardener. I use absolutely no chemicals to grow my food. If I need material things, first I look at trying to make or build it myself, then I look at what is discarded by others to give a new purpose to something old and utilize what I can. I like hiking the backcountry, or canoeing. I also sing and play guitar, that is also self-taught. I listen to a song I like, then play it. I don't know where the musical talent came from. No one else in my family plays an instrument. I like to add that my little bit of musical talent does not capture a big audience. I mostly entertain myself or a few friends that are deaf.
I have told you a little about myself and what I have done. I have never put anything on paper before. There is lots to tell from a life of hard work, family breakups, financial setbacks and the many personal sacrifices you have to make in the interest of business. So my story is not much different from other small enterprises. You know what they say when you speak of yourself, stop boasting. To look back I guess I had to learn to do things for myself because there was very little money. One doesn't stop working just because you are not always making money. There is always something to do. To give you an example, when I moved my business out of my basement, with a little financial help from my family, I built a little shop on Main Street in the neighboring town of Hare Bay from logs I cut and turned into lumber. I could not afford a car so, until I could afford a vehicle, I would walk a total of 6 miles to and from work every day, or ride my horse which I also needed to pull my firewood. Sometimes I would paddle my canoe along the shoreline. My shop was not far from the ocean. This getting to work was not a setback, I loved every minute of it. There is nothing more tranquil and majestic than a ripple-less ocean in the early morning with the sun rising at your back and the salty smell, or when walking, being greeted with a “good morning” from the early riser older folks of the village. My walk to work took me for a mile through the woods. The many songbirds along the way, all of this, made getting to work a pleasure.
I guess I carried on from where my parents and grandparents left off, doing whatever I could for myself. The “experts” at the banks would not lend me money and told me I would not make a living in rural Newfoundland. With no real financial help, my growth was slow. My business degree is my handshake and my word, and to treat people honestly.
My greatest hobby is working with leather which I have been doing for over 35 years in rural Newfoundland and still love it. My products are sold locally and shipped to customers all over North America and now my business is paying my bills, creating employment and I drive to work. I guess the experts at the bank were wrong. There is nothing in my business more important than to have a satisfied customer. I work hard to achieve this. The growth may have been slow but the journey was and is very interesting.
As they say “Jack of all, but master of nothing”.
Grab your Jamie Fraser Leather Sporran today!
Don't forget your matching Jamie Fraser's Coat, Belt, and Sawny Snake!