A lover of the ocean, Rowena Shirtliff of Sonder & Wilde lived on the sea for three years and visited many remote islands while working as a chef on private yachts in the Mediterranean, Atlantic, Caribbean and Pacific. It was here she grew her appreciation for traditional methods of making textiles, food, and products. Recently Rowena spent time at the Scuola del Cuoio (School of Leather) in Florence, Italy, where she worked alongside an artisan leather worker and learned incredibly valuable skills in construction and finishing. Sonder & Wilde comes from that love of creating and the need for honest, quality New Zealand leather goods. With a philosophy of slowing down and valuing quality over quantity, her focus is on form, function, and longevity in every piece.
How did you get into your craft?
I come from a family of makers so it was quite natural for me to fall into it myself. From a young age my mum taught me to sew and I was most often whipping up something to wear for the weekend or experimenting with different styles and fabrics. I studied fashion in Hamilton and had an opportunity to work with leather there. I loved the way it felt and something stuck with me. I had the background in design and pattern making then taught myself more and more about how leather works.
Do you have formal training or qualifications in your craft?
Yes. I studied Fashion Design at Wintec in Hamilton and worked in the design and production team for a New Zealand designer in the Waikato for two years while at design school. Also, last year (2019) I was so fortunate to do a workshop in Florence, Italy to learn traditional construction techniques and finishing. This was so incredibly valuable for me.
Your favourite materials, tools and processes?
I work mostly with cow, deer and lamb leather as I prefer its softness and flexibility. There is something really special about kangaroo leather too as it is thin and sleek but also very strong and rigid.
As a natural product, leather is made to last. You buy less often and own it for longer, promoting a more conscious approach. Unlike synthetic fibres, leather gets better with age and wear. Its the small quirky imperfections in the hide which makes it so stunningly personal and unlike the next piece. It once had its own life, and is now part of the Sonder narrative.
Tell us about some of the techniques involved in producing one of your pieces
The Sonder Slim wallet is a simple and sleek design but still has quite a bit involved in the construction. I try to make it as sleek but firm as possible. The thing with leather is that it varies in thickness, even within the same hide. To reduce the bulk for the wallet, I need to carefully slice and thin the edges of the small leather pieces by hand with a sharp scalpel. This is very time consuming but overall makes for a much better product.
What inspires you?
Travel, people, and nature. The meaning of Sonder is a feeling. It’s realising that random passers-by are living a life as complex as your own. I had many moments like this when traveling from 2014-2017 and a few times since. When I travel I like to get lost in a place, seeking out authenticity and be captivated by the locals.
Is there a philosophy behind your work?
Absolutely. My main drives are practicality, versatility and creativity. Each of my designs, although simple, exist to solve a problem. Every piece is built for purpose and style, while ensuring the wearer their bag or wallet is ethically and consciously made.
Five words that describe your mind:
Creative, honest, inquisitive, loyal, and positive.
What are you currently listening to?
Podcasts – all of them. As I’m working in my studio I have been listening a lot to start-up business advice. Then I mix it up with pop-culture, true crime, health and wellness, and things not so serious.
A favourite quote:
I’m a teacher so there are two that resonate with me – ‘Tell me and I’ll forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I will learn.’ – Benjamin Franklin, and ‘Everyone is a genius in their own way. If you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life believing it is stupid.’ – Albert Einstein.
What would your advice be for those starting out in a crafty business?
Know your brand, your customer and exactly what you are trying to achieve. Set goals, take risks, make mistakes, just start!
Why do you think it’s important to buy handmade and/or locally made goods?
The beauty of handmade lies in its imperfections. Designing a new piece has no end, it is constantly refined – handmade is hundreds of hours of lessons and experiments. Handmade is QUALITY, authentic, and an expression of creativity and dedication.
The notion of New Zealand made is something I’m quite proud of as a Kiwi. Where possible, I source leather from New Zealand tanneries as well as all Sonder products being made here.
With summer approaching fast, Sonder and Wilde will be at upcoming markets such as the Waikato Lifestyle and Design Market on October 17th, and the General Collective Christmas market on December 6th.
Special offer for Felt readers!
Rowena has has kindly offered us an awesome deal for Felt readers, for the whole of October: 10% off the whole range of gorgeous leather goods in her Felt shop! Just enter the code OCTOBER10 in the voucher code field at step 4 of checkout when you make your purchase. Thank you so much Rowena!