KITCHEN TA­BLE TAL­ENT

We cel­e­brate the home-grown en­trepreneurs who have turned their hobby into a thriv­ing busi­ness. This month: the Car­marthen­shire leather work­ers

Country Living (UK) - - Contents - words by emma pritchard pho­to­graphs by cris­tian bar­nett

In this se­ries we cel­e­brate home-grown en­trepreneurs who have turned their pas­sion into a thriv­ing busi­ness

In the wooded val­ley of the River Tywi in Car­marthen­shire, not far from a snaking sin­gle­track lane, there’s an un­usual sound on the au­tumn breeze. It vies with the song of a sky­lark and the dis­tant bark of an ex­citable dog. The dis­tinc­tive whirr of a sewing ma­chine is an in­di­ca­tion that Nia Wood and Mike Watt – cre­ators of Ru­ral Kind, for which they cre­ate beau­ti­ful leather ac­ces­sories and bags – are hard at work in­side a con­verted sta­ble block on Nia’s par­ents’ for­mer small­hold­ing. Here, in the Welsh hills, they proudly cel­e­brate Bri­tish craft and tra­di­tion with ev­ery seam, stitch and buckle.

“We wanted to take a step back from a world of mass pro­duc­tion, out­sourc­ing and dis­pos­able liv­ing, and cre­ate a small busi­ness that sup­ported our sim­ple, ru­ral and sus­tain­able ideals,” says Mike, paus­ing to re­po­si­tion a piece of fab­ric un­der the mov­ing foot of the heavy-duty sewing ma­chine. It’s a far cry from his pre­vi­ous line of work – he trained as an ar­chi­tect be­fore set­ting up his own solo prac­tice. Now his days are spent in a work­shop that has gallery win­dows over­look­ing hedgerows cur­rently heavy with black­ber­ries. “I love watch­ing the chang­ing sea­sons. Work­ing for my­self gives me the time to re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate it,” he says.

His partner – both per­son­ally and in busi­ness – stands at a large square work ta­ble, a piece of slate-coloured can­vas spread out in front of her. Nia is a qual­i­fied ar­chae­ol­o­gist and also ran her own bak­ing busi­ness for five years, but, like Mike, had never felt sat­is­fied with her ca­reer path. “We both knew that we wanted to work to­gether,” she says. “It was just a ques­tion of ‘do­ing what?’ The idea to make bags orig­i­nally came from our own prac­ti­cal need – we like hik­ing and wanted a back­pack we could take with

OPPOSITE AND THIS PAGE Nia and Mike’s busi­ness idea de­vel­oped or­gan­i­cally from their love of walk­ing and a need for a prac­ti­cal but stylish back­pack

(top right). They cre­ate their durable and func­tional prod­ucts in a con­sid­ered way, sourc­ing the ma­te­ri­als from Bri­tish busi­nesses

us, then we were look­ing for some­thing to store our lunch in, and to pro­tect our jour­nals. When I caught Mike doo­dling de­signs in front of the fire one evening, we de­cided to make up a pro­to­type from of­f­cuts we could source eas­ily and the busi­ness evolved from there.”

That, in essence, is Ru­ral Kind: hon­est and sim­ple. Six months of mak­ing and mod­i­fy­ing de­signs in the evenings and at week­ends led to their first prod­uct: the waxed can­vas util­ity tote, a ver­sa­tile hold-all that now comes in their sig­na­ture three colours: slate, teal and to­bacco. “We source the can­vas from Dundee, the leather from Devon and the brass fit­tings from the West Mid­lands. It’s im­por­tant to us to sup­port Bri­tish busi­nesses,” Mike says. “We also use a bonded ny­lon thread that can be burnt at the ends to se­cure each seam (in ad­di­tion to back-stitch­ing) and pre­vent fray­ing. When you use high-qual­ity ma­te­ri­als, ev­ery de­tail mat­ters. We make our bags to last.”

Mike pulls out a roll of light brown leather from be­neath the work­top and smooths it flat: “Each hide is unique and sourced from West Coun­try cat­tle and is tanned us­ing oak bark. We like that you can see the an­i­mal’s nat­u­ral mark­ings – they tell a story.” He be­gins to slice the leather into thin strips us­ing a spe­cial wooden cut­ter. Th­ese will make the straps of their totes and har­vest­ing bags. The shorter han­dles come from the thicker and stronger ‘butt’ part found at the rear of the cow. “Mike does all the leather work,” Nia says, tak­ing a pew at another of their three in­dus­trial sewing ma­chines, sourced sec­ond-hand from Freecy­cle and ebay. “It takes a lot of strength to cut – plus it’s so ex­pen­sive, I’m ter­ri­fied I’ll mess it up!”

Fortunately, mis­takes are some­thing Ru­ral Kind haven’t ex­pe­ri­enced many of. A com­bi­na­tion of their grad­ual or­ganic growth and pref­er­ence for ‘slow work­ing’ has meant that any de­sign is­sues have been dealt with be­fore caus­ing prob­lems. When they launched in 2014, it was on a shoe­string bud­get – Mike was freelance, Nia was work­ing part-time for the Na­tional Trust, and the pair were liv­ing with her par­ents to save up a de­posit for a house. “We didn’t want to take out a loan, so we had to rely on the sav­ings we had,” Nia re­veals. “We didn’t know how

many or­ders we’d get – if any – so we had to start small. That’s where work­ing with in­de­pen­dent sup­pli­ers re­ally helped; they let us or­der in min­i­mal quan­ti­ties, which meant we could es­tab­lish our­selves with­out the fi­nan­cial risk.” Fortunately Ru­ral Kind re­ceived or­ders from their web­site straight­away and they’ve con­tin­ued to grow ever since; they now make more than 20 bags and ac­ces­sories per month. “We’ve learnt that summer is a qui­eter time – win­ter and the run-up to Christ­mas is our busi­est pe­riod,” Nia says.

Two rhyth­mic bangs of a hand-op­er­ated press and Mike has stamped the first leather strip with the Ru­ral Kind logo. “As an un­known brand, we wanted it to be as sim­ple and ob­vi­ous as pos­si­ble,” he says. He re­turns the stamp to a box con­tain­ing the logo mark­ers for each of the three Ru­ral Kind col­lab­o­ra­tions. Like many as­pects of the busi­ness, the ori­gins of th­ese stem from online. “In­sta­gram has been an in­cred­i­ble spring­board for us,” Mike re­veals. “We haven’t done any for­mal publicity – all our cus­tomers have dis­cov­ered us through so­cial me­dia and word of mouth. We were ap­proached by Char­lott Fletcher, The Fu­ture Kept and Another Es­cape to make be­spoke prod­ucts af­ter they saw our In­sta­gram feed.”

As Mike be­gins to at­tach the strap to his fin­ished bag – first ‘hole-punch­ing’ the thick ma­te­rial, then fixing the pieces to­gether with cop­per riv­ets and wash­ers – Nia crosses the cob­bled court­yard to the main house. Within min­utes, black Scot­tie dogs Bo and Bram­ble have bounded into the stu­dio. “Some­times they join us here, but they’re more com­fort­able on a sofa by a fire,” Nia laughs. Mike places his tote on a shelf, ready to be posted; af­ter four hours of work it is com­plete. “Our smaller items – wal­lets and key car­ri­ers – take up to two hours, but most items are closer to five. Us­ing traditional tech­niques and hand-fin­ish­ing can be la­bo­ri­ous – but sat­is­fy­ingly so.” With the day’s work done and the dogs ea­ger for their walk, Mike picks up his favourite Ru­ral Kind back­pack and he and Nia head out into the evening sunshine.

For more in­for­ma­tion about Ru­ral Kind and the prod­ucts, visit ru­ralkind.co.uk. The leather and waxed cot­ton can­vas (be­low right) are cho­sen for their strength and dura­bil­ity – the cou­ple want their cus­tomers to en­joy walks in the coun­try­side as much as they do

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