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