For over two decades Caroline of Cuero Handbags has been creating a range of unique leather handbags from her base in the Scottish borders. Later this month she has teamed up with a selection of other local designers and makers to stage the now annual Art @ Ancrum, 3 days (Sat 29th April to Mon 1st May) of exhibitions and craft demonstrations taking place throughout Ancrum. A great chance to meet designers, learn about their creations and buy direct from the makers. A big thank you to Caroline for taking the time to be part of our In the Shop Window interview series at this busy time. Read on to discover behind the scenes and a look at the life of one of the borders most established and long running small businesses.
Cuero Handbags, Ancrum
My Business: I design and make bags using soft and vibrant leathers and suede. I love to keep my ideas fresh.
Starting Out: I moved to the Scottish Borders over 20 years ago, with my husband and five year old and used the opportunity to begin to develop my bag making skills. I had always worked with fabrics, mainly clothing, but quickly developed a new pleasure in working with leather. Leather is a natural material which can be frustratingly unpredictable but disarmingly beautiful. I think the way to understand it is to think of it as a sister to wood, never the same feel, grain or colour two times in a row, every skin that I unroll is a surprise.
Where I’m based: In a cosy studio, near the village of Ancrum, Jedburgh, slap bang in the middle of a Cold Comfort Farm setting. Wood burner blazing, leather on the cutting table, chat on the radio, I love it.
Business Name: It’s a tricky thing choosing a business name so I went with Cuero, which means leather in Spanish. In this age of the internet I probably should have gone with something more Scottish, too late to change it now!
My “typical” working day: I have a new and deliciously peaceful studio space. After many happy years in a workshop/shop at Harestanes, near Ancrum in the Scottish Borders, I felt the time was right for a different way of working. The opportunity to travel a bit, look for inspiration and wait and see what new ideas developed. It’s always a bit of a balancing act for makers, you have to keep fresh but you also have to keep producing, it feels just about right for me at the moment.
Previous Jobs: A wild, unproductive year at art college in Aberdeen in my early twenties, followed by a HE course specialising in textiles. A stint as a Occupational Therapy assistant and a fashion buyer at Jenners in Edinburgh. Following a move to the Scottish Borders I was able to gently start to build up my skills as a handbag maker, it all lead to this….
Self employment highs: Thats a tricky one. In theory I can plan my day, always a pleasure, but in practice things happen which take me in a completely different direction. That,however, is probably the best bit, always interesting and challenging.
Self employment lows: To have a realistic business, even if you love it so much you would happily do it for free, you have to maintain an income. All fine until you fancy a holiday. No making, no income, it’s perplexing.
Inspiration: I watch developing fashion direction but try to keep my own style. The flavour moves on but it is amazing how many of my previous designs suddenly seem to be appropriate, with a little tweak, and suddenly are current again. The leathers and suedes too, can be an inspiration on their own, a soft spongey, jewel coloured leather speaks of a totally different bag than a crisp, glossy black hide.
Find Me: Cuero Bags are all sold through my website. I love to understand the person who will carry the bag so wholesale was never the route that appealed to me. In the past I have regularly attended shows all over the UK but the power of the web and a loyal list of past customers has allowed me to dispense with the travelling and the early, early morning starts.
Business Achievements : Longevity and persistence probably, mind you it’s a way of life, you have to really love what you do, obviously maintain a reasonable income, and keep multiple plates spinning to make it all work.
Longterm goals: Keep making, keep developing, keep the excitement.
Promotion: Ah, the web. A small business can promote itself on a huge stage. In the early days attendance at some of the bigger shows gave me a platform and a presence though. The move to a dedicated workshop also seemed to get suppliers to take me seriously, of utmost importance when trying to source interesting leathers and fittings from all over Europe and worldwide.
Popular products: So many favourites but it tends to be the ones that I am working on just now, I’m fickle that way.
Must have crafty tool: Surprisingly, the machines that I use are indispensible to me. I have a wonderful walking foot sewing machine which will chug through multiple layers with ease, and a heavy cutting press, (nicknamed Mohamed Ali, it’s an old machine, what can I say!)
With Hindsight: I think I would tell myself to be braver and have more confidence in my designs and skills. Having said that I know my abilities have moved on in the last twenty years so maybe that would have been a bit over presumptous in those early days.
At Home: In my years on the craft show circuit I gathered a fair selection of the wonderful work produced by the makers that I came across. In recent years it has been mainly local artists. We are organising an event in the village of Ancrum showcasing some of the beautiful work from the Borders, many of the artists are members of Shop Scotland, definitely worth a visit. There is something rather peaceful about wondering around the village, in and out of private houses, into the church, the village hall and the pub and chatting to the artists and maybe making a purchase. Find out more about Art @ Ancrum here.
Celebrity Clients: Some years ago I was asked to make leather folders to present to the countries attending the G8 conference at Gleneagles so I suppose you could say that most of the leaders of the free world have an interest.
Plan B jobwise: Nope, only wanted to make bags.
Favourite independent shop: We have a wonderful village shop, The Ancrum Pantry,in the the village where I live. The mother and daughter who run it promote local businesses, stock artisan bread and the newly launched Lilliard Gin, made nearby in a tiny ginnery and truly, nothing is too much trouble for them.
Favourite Destination in Scotland: I have great fondness for Glenuig, on the Ardnamurchan peninsular. Childhood holidays, first solo teenage shenanigans, planting my parents ashes, under a Rowan tree and a silver birch, on the island off the bay. A stunningly beautiful part of the world where I continue to add to my memories.
Favourite Scottish Tourist Attraction: The National Museum of Scotland is high on my list. Miss the fish ponds, of course, but the machines with buttons are still there.
Hidden Scotland: There is a perfect cottage in Arnisdale, near Glenelg. Walk to Corran or, if you are the energetic type, Beinn Sgritheall towers above the village.
Favourite Scottish Celebrity: Billy Connolly, fond memories of a tiny venue in Aberdeen, when he was still really a folk singer who told jokes. At this time I am touched with how he is dealing with his illness, he is dignified but not precious. Gaun yersel’ Billy.
Favourite Scottish Band: Eddie Reader
Best thing about Scotland: It’s a small, big country and I do like a man in a kilt….
Favourite Worldwide Holiday Destination: I went to India, shocked, delighted and inspired. I bought some stunning scarves and textiles and , weirdly, they just didnt look the same when I arrived back to a Scottish Winter. It makes you realise how your surroundings affect and determine how your work can develop.
Favourite TV Show: Currently, The Great Pottery Throwdown, inspired to turn my hand to ceramics maybe….
Favourite Film: The Angels Share, whisky, Scotland, Ken Loach and a happy ending, whats not to like?
Do you believe in Nessie? Hmm, would like to, If shes out there she certainly chose a good part of the world to make her home.
Shop Scotland profile page – Cuero Handbags
Website – cuero.co.uk
Facebook – facebook.com/CueroBags
Twitter – twitter.com/Leatherbagmaker
Cuero Gift Vouchers – £10 – £100
Art @ Ancrum, 29th April – 1st May – artatancrum.org.uk
Massive thanks to Caroline for taking part in our In the Shop Window interview series. Another great designer will be featured very soon and you can look back at previous interviews here.