Costume, character and crafts(wo)manship: the leatherwork of Kay Buchanan

Kay Buchanan of Leather Creations has always had a passion for the arts – be it music, craft, painting, drawing, photography, theatre, costuming or film. Add to this a deep commitment to the ethics of her work and the inspiration of living in Aotearoa, and the result is her truly beautiful, fantastical range of leather and textile clothing and accessories.

What do you make?
I mostly make things from leather. Lately I have been making a lot of hats and bags, but I have made all sorts out of leather: costumes, garments, belts, sandals, wrist cuffs, holsters, wallets, bicycle seats, archery guards, knife sheaths, you name it. I have also lately started printing some of my drawings onto fabric t-shirts.

How did you get into your craft?
I have always loved leather, art, and making beautiful things… craft, costume, characters, theatre, photography or film. I love collaborating on creative projects with good people. I am inspired by many other artists and crafters too.

Leather particularly always stood out to me. There is a rawness about it. I love how (particularly) indigenous cultures if hunting would utilise all of the animal, so as not to waste any of it. The animal was honoured and respected in this way as a great gift. Leather is one of the first materials used by humans to make useful things: shoes, clothing, tents to live in, tools, drums, water-skins. There is something very primal about it. I like to use recycled leather where & when I can. Ethically sourced leather is ideal of course. I have a huge respect for animals as sentient beings and the good treatment of animals is very important.

Leather is one of the first materials used by humans to make useful things: shoes, clothing, tents to live in, tools, drums, water-skins. There is something very primal about it.

I started making stuff out of leather from some scrap pieces a friend gave me years ago, and it just kept going from there. I met a cowboy on my travels down south many years ago, who grew his own food, rode horses for a living and made these amazing tooled western saddles… He showed me the beginnings of working with tools and russet hide from skins he had tanned himself from cows he had raised himself. I find it very inspiring seeing people who can sustain their lives this way, growing their own food, making their own things, ethically and sustainably, which to me is where quality comes in.

The first thing I made in his workshop from tooled leather was a guitar strap. I love the idea of artisans, crafters who make beautiful things that are also useful and functional.

I travelled a lot in my twenties and was always making stuff on the road. Then I moved to Wellington and worked for Weta Workshop for a little while. I learnt a lot there too. The movie industry is something else. It’s amazing and inspiring to see what is possible when the right team get together with enough funding to create amazing works of art.

I am half-Japanese, and having spent some time in Japan I also developed a huge respect for the craftsmanship that comes from there: pottery, blacksmithing, calligraphy, zen gardens, temples, stone carvings, all of it… wow. The quality of something that lasts. Something that has taken time and care, dedication and practice to master. I have a lot of respect for this.

There was a time when all things were crafted. Before mass-production, before mass-consumerism, before this era of a “throwaway culture”. People’s skills mattered. Quality and craftsmanship mattered. I’m not saying it doesn’t matter now, but I do believe that a lot needs to change in the world in regards to sustainability.

There was a time when all things were crafted. Before mass-production, before mass-consumerism, before this era of a “throwaway culture”. People’s skills mattered. Quality and craftsmanship mattered.

Do you have formal training or qualifications in your craft?
As far as leatherwork goes, I am pretty much self taught, however I have of course had great people along the way to give me tips and show me a thing or two. I also have a Bachelors Degree in Media Arts.
Your favourite materials, tools and processes?
My favourite leather to work with is russet hide, veg tan. This leather is great because it is so durable and I love to carve designs into leather, and colour leather different colours, with russet you can do all these things, as well as wet mould it into shapes and essentially sculpt it. I have made replica vintage bicycle seats from wet moulding leather, as well as hats. I also love that each piece becomes a work of art, almost like a painting, or a wood carving. You can make just about anything out of leather, I think that is one of the reasons I love to work with it, because it is so diverse and malleable.
What inspires you?
Sounds a little cliched but I am inspired by nature. Ever since I was a little girl I have been inspired by forests, large bodies of water, the sea, rivers, waterfalls, lakes, vast landscapes, big mountains, wild animals… wildness. I feel humbled by these things, puts a lot in perspective. Stars. The sun. The moon. Cycles. There are so many lessons in nature, the chaos and the order. The beauty and brutality. Everything has something to teach us if we are open to learn. I am greatly inspired by humans too. Good friends. Good people. Artists. Musicians. Music. Creation.
Describe your workspace:
Messy! Ha. I have a little workshop that I wouldn’t mind being a lot bigger! Haha. It is filled with leather, tools, dyes, sewing machines and a mini set for my pop up photography studio. There are many trinkets and pictures on the walls, lots of little things that have been gifted to me, or that I feel inspired by. I like creating a feel for a space that I am working in. My little workshop is part of a collective I share with six other creative women. Our gallery is called “Ahoy” located on 11 Bankart Street, Raglan. We each have our own little workspace, and we share a little gallery/shop in the front to display and sell our creations.
Five words that describe your mind:
Chaotic. Creative. Observant. Conscious. Subjective.
Your favourite feedback from a customer:
Not sure what my favourite is… but here is a recent one that made me really happy: “Received my piece of wearable art from you today, it is magnificent, the attention to detail, and crafts(wo)manship is absolutely stunning. Thank you ever so much for doing such a beautiful hat. The hat will be loved and cherished. Thank you once again.”
What are you currently listening to?
Hard question cause there is so much music out there, so many different genres and styles and I love so much of it. Right at this very moment I am listening to Edward Sharp & The Magnetic Zeros, “Man on Fire.” I love Radiohead. Bjork. Devendra Banhart. Fat Freddy’s Drop. Bright Eyes. Paul Simon. Bob Dylan. Bob Marley and the Wailers. Led Zeppelin. Nina Simone. Yann Tiersen. Tool. Honestly there is so much. What I listen to is always changing. Actually my favourite music is listening to friends play live. Or around a fire.
Recommend an album:
Mongrels by Fraser Ross. Great Album. Because we are all mongrels baby.
What’s your favourite childhood book and why?
Sounds a bit nerdy (probably because I am actually a nerd at heart haha) but when I was a kid I was really into female heroines. Wild Magic by Tamora Pierce is about a young girl whose family was killed by bandits, but who learned how to look after herself and hunt exceptionally well with a bow and arrow. She also has wild magic that once turned her into a wolf, so she ran with the wolves, forgetting she was human. As she grew older she learned how to control her own mind through meditation and practice, and she learned how to direct her wild magic to good purposes. She also learned how to shape shift into any animal of her own accord, and to heal. I always found stories like these to be inspiring and empowering.
What are you reading now?
Right now? Tom Robbins, Another Roadside Attraction. I love Tom Robbins’ books.
Who is your hero/heroine?
There are lots of people I am grateful for. Someone who comes to mind for me right now as a hero/heroine is my yoga teacher and mentor, Katie Pervan from Sun Salute Yoga in Hamilton. Her constant dedication to the Ashtanga Yoga practice, her absolute integrity as a human being. Her strength and softness and compassion, how much she gives of herself to others in support as a teacher through the practice. Truly inspiring.
A favourite quote:
So many favourite quotes. There are so many. Here’s one for today:

“Love is the ultimate outlaw. It just won’t adhere to any rules. The most any of us can do is to sign on as its accomplice. Instead of vowing to honour and obey, maybe we should swear to aid and abet. That would mean that security is out of the question. The words “make” and “stay” become inappropriate. My love for you has no strings attached. I love you for free.” – Tom Robbins, Still Life with Woodpecker

Do you have any pets?
I help to care for a very cool cat named Maowmaow. He’s pretty badass.
If you were a crafty superhero, what would your name and superpower be?
Hmmm, superhero name…? I’m not sure… but a cool superpower would be to be able to generate loving kindness and happiness into every human being on the planet. Ha. Or to fly. Or breathe under water. Or earn ridiculous amounts of money doing what I love and deposit it into great and wonderful things.

What would your advice be for those starting out in a crafty business?
Do what inspires you, BELIEVE IN YOURSELF, work hard, don’t give up.
What was the last handmade item you bought and what attracted you to it?
Dutch cheese. Stinging Nettle cheese actually! Yum. I love artisan foods. Especially good cheese, good beer & good wine. Deliciousness attracted me to it. (Perfectly understandable – sounds yum! -Ed.)
What’s in store for 2016?
In 2016 I will be making more costume pieces. I have a couple of collaborative projects lined up that I am looking forward to. As well as of course, making beautiful and unique pieces for lovely commissioners.

Kay has very generously offered not one but two fabulous prizes for a lucky Felt reader (pictured below): one of her beautiful feather wrist cuffs (worth $65), AND one of her stunning ram skull t-shirts (worth $69) in the winner’s choice of size. To be in to win, simply leave a comment telling us what you like about Kay’s story and her creations. The draw will be made on Friday 11 March and is open to New Zealand residents only.

leatherart feather wrist cuff

leatherart ram skull t-shirt


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19 thoughts on “Costume, character and crafts(wo)manship: the leatherwork of Kay Buchanan

  1. Wow. What an authentic, beautiful woman – no surprise she creates authentic, beautiful pieces. Loved reading about her and her stunning work – am completely inspired and motivated to continue my own creative journey. “Believe in yourself, work hard and don’t give up” was exactly what I needed to hear today. Blessings, Kay – and thanks.

  2. What’s not to like about this story. What an inspiration she is! I particularly like that she is working with a medium that has so much significance historically and her ethics on sustainability really strike a chord with me.What a great artist thank you for doing this piece.

  3. Wow, this interview brought back vivid memories of playing with scrap pieces of leather and my (very tolerant) neighbour’s set of punches in her garage as a kid. Thanks for the reminiscence and it’s wonderful to see this skill developed so beautifully, thoughtfully and responsibly in Kay’s hands.

  4. I really enjoyed this feature. Reading about Kay’s journey to get to this point, and her ethical and philosophical considerations are inspiring – not to mention the exquisite leatherwork and awesome t-shirts! I love tooled leather and have a couple of precious op-shopped things I treasure. My Dad has a tooled leather wallet which his father made as part of his therapy after a mental breakdown many years ago, craft can be theraputic as well as functional and beautiful, but I digress… Amazing work Kay!

  5. I LOVE this quote. So real!
    “There was a time when all things were crafted. Before mass-production, before mass-consumerism, before this era of a “throwaway culture”. People’s skills mattered. Quality and craftsmanship mattered.”
    Kay’s art is just that, art. Functional, natural, beautiful.

  6. That cover photo on meet the maker is absolutely stunning and should be gracing “Vogue” or “Tattler” etc. As should be the very informative and inspirational interview. What an extremely beautiful person and so extremely talented.

  7. A very inspiring read! It’s so refreshing to read about another’s person passion for their craft and their understanding of the history and significance of the craft. Kay’s work is truly beautiful. I love all her featured pieces but those hats are to die.

  8. I love Kay’s advice to other “Crafters” – “Do what inspires you, BELIEVE IN YOURSELF, work hard, don’t give up”. So simple and concise but so powerful and uplifting too. I also love how she takes every opportunity and situation that she is given or faced with and runs with it, takes advantage of every opportunity to learn and grow, to improve and add to her craft, skills and knowledge. As a designer I can really relate to and love her determination to make beautiful stunning items which are also productive and practical 🙂

  9. Leatherwork is one of those mediums I want to learn and reading this has sparked my interest once again. Leather is one of those timeless materials that seem to improve with age and use and become valued items – I still have my leather satchel from my first day of school. Great photos and great work Kay, I take my (sadly non-leather) hat off to you.

  10. I love your honest down-to-earth interview & approach to crafting. Respecting your materials & making the craft of leatherwork live on. I can tell you put a lot of time into your creations & thanks for sharing the type of leather you use. Love the photos & feather details on the hat & cuff. Stunning crafts(wo)manship. Xx

  11. Wow, thank you all so much for the positive feedback! Very humbled & grateful. Thanks to Felt for putting this interview together, so nice to see New Zealand crafters & artists being supported on this great website. My humble gratitude to you all. So nice to know at the very least I may have inspired some of you, and I absolutely agree with the comment above that craft can be theraputic as well as functional and beautiful… Thank you!

  12. Leather is a super star in the art and craft world. I never forgot the WOW awards winner that was made of hand tooled leather. Leather is something that even as a crafter I would never try because people like Kay blow your socks off!!!!

  13. I love inspiring stories, love this… absolutely beautiful work. Am totally in love with everything … The story of meeting the ‘cowboy’ and how he lives, inspiring. Very very beautiful work.

  14. Wow what a great amazing story! I love that she is inspired by nature – there is so much beauty in our natural environment that can be brought into handmade creations. The pieces would take a lot of time and concentration – the work looks exceptional!

  15. I love the focus on ‘beautiful things that are functional and useful’, and on quality and craftsmanship. Beautiful stuff that is also useful – it’s the perfect combo.

  16. That amazing leather worker WOW awards winner was Nadine Jaggi, she is incredible, I worked with her for a short while at Weta Workshop in Wellington, she encouraged me & inspired me so much! If you are a crafter, leather may or may not be for you, but ya never know if until you try 🙂

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