Something Sacred in the Walls
Words by Ginny Ellsworth
Photos by Shannon O’Hara
Down a side road off Main Street in Sealy, Texas, population 6,500, just across the railroad tracks, sits an unassuming white clapboard building. At first glance, you might think it was an old church, which would be okay because the revival going on inside has just as much soul.
Cheryl Schulke didn’t intend on running her company out of her grandparents’ old mattress factory, but like many opportunities to grow her business over the past 12 years, everything just fell into place—it was clearly meant to be.
More than a decade ago, a friend in the cowhide business capitalized on Cheryl’s creative eye by asking her to take some photos for her store. Knowing it would be good for her portfolio and a new experience for her photography business, she agreed. Cheryl walked away that day with a small cowhide, though she had no idea what to do with such an artifact. You can take one look at Cheryl and tell she’s not your stereotypical Texas gal. With her funky haircut and paint-splattered pants, her aura oozes creativity. “I wasn’t a cowgirl. While I’m from here,” she says of the small Texas town, “the cowhide just wasn’t in my aesthetic. So I put it in my stash of all the things that I collected.”
Time went by, and one day, as Cheryl was heading out to Round Top to snap some photos, she was hunting for a bag to tote her camera. (For those of you non-Texans out there, Round Top is the mecca of all things unique and old. A farmers-market-meets-crafts-fair antique show on steroids.) Not one to carry a mainstream brand, she dug through her stash and pulled out the tiny cowhide. She hand stitched it into a bag and crafted a strap out of an old belt in her closet—all with her home sewing machine.
As she ventured through the treasure hunt that is Round Top, at least 50 people stopped her to ask where she got her bag. She also visited her friend’s booth to show her what became of the little cowhide—and after three days of begging, Cheryl was finally convinced to sell the bag to her friend in exchange for another cowhide.
Having made only one bag and now working with a larger cowhide, the thought of cutting a pattern out of such a beautiful piece of leather was overwhelming. “I don’t have leather workers in my family; I have carpenters and woodworkers,” Cheryl says as she explains why she chose to use wooden forms to construct her pieces. With no solid idea of how it “should” be done, she finally just bit the bullet and did it. And then she did it again. “I didn’t know what I was doing, so there was no fear.” (Besides, Cheryl isn’t the type to let fear get in her way.)
Convinced that she could make a business out of this newfound talent, her husband bought her an industrial sewing machine as a birthday and anniversary present. Her business, which she called Stash, began to evolve organically. “I would do work, get a little money, and trade for some equipment,” she recalls.
As she gained experience, her wheels started turning, “I had this idea for a bag, which is actually this bag right here,” she says, motioning toward a large tote on the table. “It’s our market bag. I didn’t know how I was going to execute it, because you have to get inside the bag.” Thinking it would require expensive equipment, she headed to Lee Miller Boots in Austin, where she was graciously imparted with all of the knowledge about crafting leather she needed.
She was able to make enough inventory to share a friend’s booth at a farmers market in Houston’s historic-turned-hipster neighborhood, The Heights. Not only did she sell out of bags, she sold the one she was using. (She carried her belongings home in a plastic bag that day.) “That was the best feeling ever”—she sighs and glances upward, recalling that feeling of sweet success.
Stash outgrew its designated area in Cheryl’s house, which is located just north of Houston. Showing her aunt, uncle, and father what she was making, they suggested she move her production into her grandparents’ old mattress factory.
Since then, Stash has expanded and Cheryl has had—and taken—the opportunity to produce her bags in bulk, “But,” she says, “that’s not what we’re about” Her eyes then light up as she dives into her process of mindful production versus mass production. “We take every piece of leather and treat it like an individual, asking the questions, ‘What can we get out of this?’ and, ‘How can we maximize it?’ ”
Stash artisans look at each piece of leather individually, and they develop a vision for every square inch of the piece. “We aim for zero waste,” Cheryl explains. From her market bags to her modernist wallets to her wine bottle wraps (or liquor bottle—they don’t discriminate), they use every piece of the leather they possibly can. Indeed, the wine wraps were the solution to the scraps no one knew what to do with.
Cheryl has carefully curated her small but mighty team of talented women. They’ve certainly proven that they can do straight-up production, but Stash has garnered a reputation for one-of-a-kind work. Cheryl explains that’s because stitching is not the only thing taken into account. The energy with which each product is produced is also important. Using wood forms, a grit mat, and rulers, Cheryl and her right-hand gal Kristen cut and stitch each piece themselves by hand.
The stitching is front and center, which is why it’s difficult to find craftspeople who can execute to the level of quality which Stash asks of them. “Some days I can’t even execute it,” Cheryl admits. “If you slip when you’re sewing, it’s done.”
Working through the hot Texas summer in an old clapboard building with little air conditioning takes stamina, dedication, and passion. “The best employees are the ones that ‘happen’ to us.” Cheryl goes back to the concept of how the opportunities that are meant to be seem to just fall into place for her booming company.
“These people show up in our lives to be part of not just the brand story, but also the community and the opportunity, and I think that is more sometimes of what this is. The people who love us and know us best know that they’re carrying a bag with energy and love sewn into it,” Cheryl says, exposing the heart of her company.
The sacredness of the energy and the space is not lost in their success. The walls have been painted in bright colors from old paint left over from her grandmother’s unfinished projects. “She always wanted this space to be something,” Cheryl says “…something more, but she didn’t know what.” Cheryl didn’t have the intention of making something of the old mattress factory, but she feels that it was meant to be. Even still, she occasionally gets a whiff of her grandmother’s scent —a smell she describes as a little bit sweeter than the lead of freshly sharpened pencils, adding a heavenly nod of approval.
Speaking fondly of the original mattress business, Cheryl says, “The energy of this space required a community to produce what they produced.” And that energy remains as the Stash crew works together as a community to bring into the marketplace products stitched with love.