Charlese Gridley, founder and owner of Cactus Coulee Leather, had an unexpected start to her business venture.
Earlier this year, when her studies at Olds College were abruptly interrupted by the pandemic, she was sent home to complete her program in equine science remotely. With the lockdown, Gridley looked for something to pass the time—that’s when she came across leather tooling.
“So I bought a piece of leather and bought some tools and then I just started making earrings,” says Gridley.
As she fashioned various leatherwork earrings, Gridley had no idea what would come of it. Soon word about her leatherwork started to pick up around town. At first, it was a couple neighbours who purchased her artisanal leather jewelry and then locals started buying as well.
From there, Gridley honed her leatherwork with the help of YouTube, even expanding her collection. She crafting everything from leather cuffs, belts, dog collars, pop sockets, and keychains.
“I started leather tooling because I loved all the leather tooling I've seen on saddle belts and I just love the tradition of it. I wanted to create those traditions as well as new designs,” says Gridley.
With a love for western culture, Gridley’s leatherwork emulates the rustic fashion style. But Gridley also draws inspiration from her everyday life. Each piece of artisanal leatherwork reflects her experiences out on her family’s grain farm as well as her passion for the equine lifestyle.
“I get a lot of ideas because we're just out in the open, out in the landscape. Farming has definitely helped me with some of my design ideas and colour inspiration and what to design,” says Gridley.
Even her business name, Cactus Coulee Leather, was inspired by her natural environment. Living just a couple minutes away from Drumheller and right along the Red Deer River, Gridley found the name of her spontaneous venture. “I thought of the name because we live around the river valley and we call it the ‘coulee,’” says Gridley.
Out in the coulees, when the cacti begin to bloom, it can be a striking sight to see. That’s when the name Cactus Coulee Leather came to fruition. “My mom and I kind of decided that that would be kind of a unique name to go with,” she added.
The Art of Leather Tooling
While leather is a lightweight and flexible material, there are many nuances to leather tooling. Combining various shaping and colouring techniques, leather tooling can result in unique pieces of art.
Starting with a strip of leather, Gridley traces the base of her piece into the leather.
“If I was going to do like a simple pair of earrings, so I pick out like the shape of the earrings—so let's say someone wanted like a teardrop shape—I trace it [and] I draw it out on the leather,” Gridley says.
Then with a damp sponge, Gridley saturates the leather which makes it easier to cut and tool the leather. Once the leather is malleable, she carves out her design—usually a floral pattern surrounded by some decorative swirls—and then bevels it to make it pop.
After the design is finished, the leather piece is oiled to retain moisture and prevent the piece from deteriorating. Along with the oil, Gridley also applies a gloss coat and then finishes it off with a process called ‘antiquing.’
“All the detailed stuff you put into it, once you put the antiquing on—it's just amazing how the transformation will just come to life,” she says.
Visit Cactus Coulee Leather on Facebook: @cactuscouleeleather