Tracie Beardsley meets Dorset craftsmen Chris and Ed, internationally recognised as two of the world’s best under-40 leatherworkers
It’s a late Friday afternoon when I interview Chris Holbrook and Ed Waldron. Both men have already worked an extremely long week, Ed as a community nurse supporting elderly patients in care homes and Chris helping run his family’s successful shoe repair shop in Dorchester.
Evenings all week have been busy too, designing and handmaking from scratch the beautiful leather products – handbags, bags, belts, wallets, dog leads and collars – in their tiny workroom. All weekend, and virtually every weekend between now and Christmas, these talented craftsmen will sell their luxury leather goods at craft and Christmas markets.
Chris explains: ‘Every year our home becomes like Santa’s workshop. We spill out from the workroom into the dining room to keep up with commissions.’
Both men are self-taught, and their business, Orris Leather, was born out of a hobby. Chris, whose stepfather and step-grandfather are cobblers, went on an introductory shoe-making course. Ed, who is a gifted embroiderer from a family devoted to arts and crafts, also decided to turn his hand to working with leather.
Ed says: ‘It got to the stage where we had made so many wallets for ourselves and friends, it seemed a natural progression to start making belts. Then came dog collars, accessories and bags. We took the leap three years ago and launched our business.’
And though both still have the security of “day jobs”, their business is booming. As well as making their own designs, they take commissions, do repairs and run workshops. Chris says: ‘We’ve just helped someone restore an antique sword case. It was such a privilege to work on it and share our knowledge with the owner.’
Their work has been recognised locally and internationally. They won the Perpetual Challenge Cup at Dorset County Show 2022 for best craft exhibit – a stunning suede-lined handbag. The same year, they were included in the prestigious 40 under 40, a scheme to find the forty best young leatherworkers in the world, organised by one of the UK’s most reputable leather producers, Abbey England in Cheshire. So how do the pair share the workload?
‘We make it as fair as possible,’ says Ed. ‘Some of our products are hand-dyed, which Chris is really good at it. I don’t have his patience, so I don’t get as consistent results – it is an art in itself. A slightly different part of leather yields slightly different colours, and Chris manages to get uniform results. I steer clear!’
Chris adds: ‘Ed is much braver than I am. He’ll give new techniques a go then teach me. We know each other’s strengths, which makes us a good team.’
Are they critical of each other’s work? ‘Not of each other’s, but we’re overly critical of our own,’ admits Ed. ‘We’re dedicated to producing high quality products. Finish is so important to us. A lot of leatherwork out there is unfinished in terms of the hallmarks of quality. We won’t scrimp on those.
‘We spend time perfecting products rather than sending out anything substandard. Leather is forgiving – treat it well and it will treat you well in return.’
Steady concentration is key in leatherwork. An average-sized bag has between 800 and 1,500 hand-sewn stitches and takes about three days; more complex bags with lining will take six days to complete. Sewing machines are never used.
Ed says: ‘Stitching is beautifully repetitive and relaxing. I think I could stitch in my sleep. We must have made millions of stitches in the past three years.
‘And calloused fingers are just part of the job!’
Quick fire questions:
Books by your bedside?
Ed: I’m a sucker for a 99p Kindle download so I couldn’t tell you what I’m reading as there’s no front cover image!
Chris: I don’t get much time to read but the last book I read was ‘The Secret Life of Trees’ by Colin Tudge.
A-lister dinner party guests? (once the dining table is clear!)
Ed: The Queen. She was such an interesting person, incredibly understated. I’d like to get below her surface. Also the charming Sean Connery and The Repair Shop’s Suzie Fletcher – we’ve been lucky enough to meet her and she’s so chilled.
Chris: Patricia Routledge and Angela Lansbury! I love Murder She Wrote. Also, Joanna Lumley and Jennifer Saunders – I’m a big Ab Fab fan, and they would be an absolute riot.