Nathan O'Malley - Artist Study
This is part of an ongoing series on the how, where, and why behind some people making and doing awesome things in the Midwest.
Nathan O'Malley is part of Leatherworks MN, a St. Paul based, family run company that puts an emphasis on handmade, quality leather products. I grabbed a beer with Nathan to chat after he walked me through the different steps of making a handcrafted wallet.
Zach: Tell me a bit about yourself and what you do.
Nathan: I’m Nathan O’Malley, 27 years old, and I work for Leatherworks MN, owned by my parents Kent and Lee.
Zach: How did Leatherworks start?
Nathan: Leatherworks started in 1999. It started with my parents working in the basement. At the time he was managing a larger leather company that was bought out and sold to China. So they started their own leather company in the basement and it slowly poured out to the garage. It took about twelve years for Leatherworks to become what it is today. It was a struggling business for a long time, until about 2011. That was around the time that Made in America started getting more popular and people started caring. Because we’d done it for so long already, we kind of got pushed to the forefront of that movement.
Zach: How long have you been a part of it?
Nathan: Officially, about three and a half years, but I grew up helping my parents out in the shop as far back as middle school. When I was in college my dad would hire me for the summer and then February of 2012 was when my dad asked me to come full time.
Zach: What products do you make?
Nathan: We make mostly small men’s accessories. In the past we’ve made purses and bags as well. We’ve gotten away from that a little bit, but we’re thinking about adding those back to the line. But mostly wallets, suspenders, key fobs, camera straps, a couple different styles of belts. We’re also working on a few new leather canvas designs, a dopp kit and backpack.
Zach: Has the work changed much since opening?
Nathan: I think the only thing that’s changed is the volume of what we’re producing because we’ve always made the same things since we started in ’99. Some slight variations to make things more functional. We’ve added two or three new wallets in the past few years but largely we’ve made the same stuff.
Zach: Walk me through the different steps of making a wallet.
Nathan: The first thing we do is order the leather. The majority of our hides come from the Red Wing Boot tannery called S.B. Foot. We cut everything out at our small shop. We bring it up here and imprint first and then we edge dye the tops of the pockets. Then we piece, then sew, then we burn the threads, then we grind the edge dye, burn, buff, balm, and then buff again. So everything we make is about fourteen steps to it.
Zach: Do you feel like you grew up in a pretty creative household?
Nathan: I did. So my dad started doing leather back in the 70’s. He started working for the original Leatherworks. He left to become a pastor. At that time the company grew into more of a warehouse situation which was when it was bought out and he lost his job there and started this. He’s always been creative and an artist type. I grew up in a household that really encouraged music. I grew up in piano lessons and guitar. A musical, artistic household that’s always creating and doing things like that.
Zach: Why is the handmade/American-made aspect important to you guys?
Nathan: They were so burned when the company got bought out and sold to China and they were like, “We want to help boost our country and our local economy.” So for us, handmade and the people that care about it, and are willing to pay a little more to have something that lasts, boosts the community. We’re able to make a decent living doing what we do, through people that care and that pours back out into the community where we can support people as well.
Zach: Describe your workspace.
Nathan: Our studio is on the second floor of the Northern Warehouse in Lowertown. I believe it is 1300 square feet. A very beautiful space. I think what we really enjoyed about the space when we found out we were gonna get it is how big the windows are and the natural light that flows in. We have the shop set up so that production is circular, imprint first than sewing and finishing, a very fluid motion. It’s a very fun, relaxing space. We have a lot of people that come in and just want to sit and watch us work. And it smells really good. (laughs)
Zach: What does a typical day look like?
Nathan: I arrive at 8:00 every morning, usually on time. (laughs) I get straight to work. I’ll usually hop on the sewing machine right away to catch up on anything from the day before. We try to have a meeting at 10:00. We take an hour lunch break from 12:00-1:00 and then work from 1:00-5:00. Besides from my folks, we have three full timers including myself so everyone is in the own station.
Zach: Why do you choose do something where you’re creating?
Nathan: I think for me, I need a creative outlet. It was always kind of music and around the time Leatherworks started growing I was able to see how important it was and was able to help my parents see the larger vision of what our company could be through social networking and our brand really grew. I do it because I honestly enjoy it. It’s fun for me to relax and sew and work hard and be at rest at the same time. It’s a very peaceful full time job. I love it. We get to meet so many people and inspire people. I think it’s become something bigger than we even knew it could be. We sit at sewing machines all day and it’s not that cool but people that come in are very inspired.
Zach: What’s the most rewarding part of the job for you?
Nathan: That’s a good question. I think just working with my family. It’s something that’s not easy. You have to learn to divide ‘I’m your son’ but here we’re just coworkers. But it is fun to work with my parents and get inspired by them and inspire each other. We are very normal and down to earth people so it’s fun when people tell us that what we’re doing matters to them.
Zach: What are you inspired by?
Nathan: I’m inspired by the deeper meanings of life. Which is very broad. (laughs)
Purpose. Feeling like I’m legitimately living out my purpose every day inspires me. I’ve had some really great friends that have inspired me to be more creative and live morally. I’m inspired by God and my girlfriend Lydia.
Zach: What’s the most difficult part of what you do?
Nathan: Showing up to work on time. (laughs) Maybe I should start leaving my house earlier. I don’t think there really is anything super difficult about what I do once you’ve got it down.
Zach: What do you want people to experience when they see or buy a Leatherworks MN product?
Nathan: We hope that people notice the amount of work that we put into everything we do. There are a lot of leather companies out there and we always half-heartedly joke that we’re the most meticulous. We look at every stitch and if that knot is showing we cut it out and do it again. We want people to know that the money was well spent on something that’s gonna last a long time, appreciate the craftsmanship of it. Everything from the cutting process to the finishing and edge dying, we want everything we make to be perfect.
Zach: What’s on your music playlist right now?
Nathan: (laughs) A little Berlin. A little Ryan Adams. I listen to a lot of Ryan Adams when I need to get that extra special something. The National. Volcano Choir.
Zach: What advice would you give someone starting a business?
Nathan: Half the time I feel like I don’t know anything. Fortunately, I’m the one that runs the company so I don’t have to make the big decisions. I kind of got a test run back in February when my parents took a month off. I ran the shop. I paid the bills, did the ordering. The biggest thing is just having patience. You don’t have to have it all now. I gave a friend some advice the other day, he’s starting a company. It was just ‘Be nice to your customers.’ Don’t run a business like it’s the mob. Be someone relatable. Be kind. Smile at people. I think that goes a lot farther than that tough persona. When people leave your shop they should feel more inspired than when they came there. I think that’s what we try to encompass at Leatherworks MN.