When I decided to embark on this new life in Texas, I had hesitations thinking about how challenging it might be for me to find my tribe, my people. As a seeker and an adventurer, I’ve come to enjoy the hunt of discovering and Texas is a really big territory to conquer. I’d gotten so used to my California lifestyle, which sometimes felt like there was a hidden gem around every other corner. The abundance of like minded artists that I encountered was always flowing and I never had to look too far off to find the gems. Things are a bit more challenging here. The hunt is longer and the travel time to get there is more than a quick trip on hwy 101. I’ve come to realize that this is what makes it all that much sweeter.
I recently was introduced to a real gem of an artist and a member of my tribe in Cheryl Schulke, creator of Stash Co., a handmade leather accessories company based in Sealy, Texas. I heard about Cheryl through my new Houston friend and celebrated chef, Monica Pope of Sparrow Bar + Cookshop. When I told Monica about my blog and my search for soulful artists, she told me I had to meet Cheryl. That she made leather products out of an old mattress factory in Sealy and that I had to go out there. All I had to hear was that she was in a small town making leather out of an old mattress factory and I was fully intrigued. When I looked her up online, the first thing I saw was this video and I immediately wanted to be in it wearing denim and leather and my cowboy hat carrying an american flag through the forest. This was it, I found it, my tribe.
I’ve mentioned before those special chills I get when I encounter someone or something that resonates deep in my soul. This is what happened when I visited the old Haynes mattress factory where Cheryl has set up shop for the past six years since she and her husband, Paul Forde, started Stash. Built in 1909 and bought by her grandparents in 1956, the building was used for production of handmade mattresses until the mid 1970′s before business ceased and it was deemed an historical landmark. Cheryl holds a deep connection to the building and the parallels between her leather making and her grandparents mattress making go beyond the obvious family tradition of making things by hand. It is through the history of the work that has taken place in the building and the collaborative effort of creating that has connected the soul of Cheryl to create Stash in this simple split-story building.
The handmade wooden equipment and machines that were original to Haynes still sit in the factory as a reminder of the past and an encouragement to keep Cheryl’s process authentic. I was amazed and inspired as I walked through and looked at each level of the process that was used to hand make a mattress. I had no idea the kind of work that went into each one and I garnered a whole new admiration for what could be looked at as a lost art. The similarities between the two different processes of creating gave me chills and a deep understanding into why Cheryl started Stash.
Stash was founded through a very organic and authentic process that started with one simple bag. Cheryl was given a cowhide through a trade she made for photography she produced for a friend. That cowhide sat on the back of a chair for sometime before Cheryl decided to create a tote bag for her upcoming trip to shop Round Top market (my last few posts covered my trip there last month). She needed a simple tote to carry throughout the market and she finished it with a strap made from a vintage belt in her closet. To her surprise, the bag raised a lot of attention at the market and she ended up selling it on its first outing. Shortly after, her husband Paul gave her a sewing machine for their anniversary and she began to experiment. It was when her good friend introduced her to a boot maker in Austin that she learned everything she needed to know and she started Stash (a nickname given to her as a child because of her penchant for collecting things).
Cheryl has created a production process that resonates with her personally as well as with the brand. She doesn’t create with restrictions or timelines instead she keeps the process simple and based on authenticity of the art form. She produces limited runs of bags based on her supply and once those are created and sold, then its onto the next. This process not only creates a sense of purpose for each of the hides, but it allows for full maximization of the materials.
Around 80% of her goods are created using American bison with the other 20% utilizing traditional cowhides. Cheryl is very particular about the hides she chooses as each one needs to have its own unique nature to allow her design process to work. Cheryl “finds the art” in each piece of leather when creating the bags looking at each hide individually, finding the beauty that they dictate.
She relates her design process to building, with a large portion of the process being “solution oriented”. Her work progresses from concept to sketch to wooden mold, then etching and waxing, all executed by hand. Her process of building is just as organic as the brand’s start, and she allows the “mistakes” to be a part of the bag which in turn creates soul and authenticity within each piece created.
All of the Stash products are handmade at the factory using “old school” techniques that keep the brand in line with the spirit of the factory. Her husband and partner Paul has built most of the modern tools she utilizes in her creative process including a Vacuum press table that shapes and presses the sides for each of the bags, a Stash signature.
Because she mostly designs using bison hides, her bags allow for more structure and shape creating a unique perspective to the leather goods market. Along with leather bags, she also utilizes reclaimed vintage military materials that she sometimes incorporates with the leather on special one of a kind editions.
When choosing her hides, Cheryl looks for imperfections that she can design into the bags to “create something beautiful and useful” as well as unique. Anther Stash signature is the use of mattress ticking for lining, a detail that nods to the factory’s past and remind the owner of a classic tradition.
The Stash Factory is a magical place. Not only does it carry a spirit of design and history, it is utilized in a very modern way serving as a store, a showroom and a production facility. But Cheryl and Paul haven’t stopped there. They have also created a combined vision of a creative platform for their tribe to gather, create and inspire utilizing the space to showcase musicians & artists creating special one of a kind experiences for their family, clients and friends to take part in the magic. For them, sharing and supporting other artists is a part of their brand DNA and creating a creative community is their passion.
The first floor of the factory serves as a retail space, showroom and occasional event space. I was inspired at every turn with Cheryl’s 20 plus years of flea market finds on display alongside her amazing collection of bags. Many of their friend’s work is on display throughout the space showcased in the mix of Cheryl’s knack for merchandising and Paul’s industrial design talents.
Stash’s leather products range from wallets, journals, guitar straps and belts to travel totes, backpacks and clutches. Cheryl is always creating new products and isn’t limited when thinking about the scope of what she can do. She has been contracted by a few of Houston’s best restaurants (her first commission by the aforementioned Sparrow Bar + Cookshop) to collaborate on staff aprons and bill folders and other restaurant needs garnering her a niche in Houston’s fast growing restaurant and hospitality market.
Similar to a pheonix rising from the ashes, Cheryl and Paul have created something for themselves that speaks true to their heart and has allowed them to create a vision that is in line with their ethos. Their dedication to Stash and what it represents is inspiring and so rare to find. Not only have they created this factory on their own, but their business has developed solely through the use of social media and the internet. They currently sell their goods direct to consumer through their website or by appointment at the Stash Factory.
I’m thrilled to have hunted down Stash and I feel even more excited about sharing them with you. Similar to how Cheryl creates each bag with purpose, I am starting see my purpose in Texas a bit clearer as my life unfolds organically every new day. Soon it shall be revealed; in the meantime I hope you enjoy my continuous search for soul.