By Karen Ott Mayer | Photography courtesy of Karen Ott Mayer and Lakeland Leatherworks
Lakeland Leatherworks creates handcrafted leather goods that are bought for practicality but cherished as heirlooms.
In today’s mass markets pushing Amazon-style, one-size-fits-all goods, it’s rare to find high-quality handcrafted products like those found at Lakeland Leatherworks. Located in Lakeland, just east of Memphis, Tenn., Tom and Donna Hathaway’s workshop is filled with every imaginable leather item from small key chains to elaborate bags and coats. And all is crafted by the couple or their primary leather artist, Jean Garny.
“We make everything individually by hand,” explains Donna Hathaway, adding that among their extensive inventory, many of their products begin as custom-made orders based on one or two prototypes.
The couple ventured full time into the business in 2010 when they both retired from their primary careers. They were both raised near Trenton, Missouri, and have known each other since high school.
Tom Hathaway first became interested in leather working when his mother arranged for Don Atkinson, a renowned saddle maker and leather craftsman whose works are in the Cowboy Hall of Fame, to mentor him on Saturdays. Donna also had a connection with Don.
“It was sort of serendipitous because Don was my dad’s best friend and he kept his horses at our farm,” Donna Hathaway says. “That’s how I met Tom, through our mutual interest in horses.
“We all had horses and showed them,” she adds. “That’s where we met… at a horseshow.”
The pair agreed that rural living during the 1950s and 1960s offered little to do.
“There was more emphasis on doing things for yourself,” Tom Hathaway says.
As work and family demands grew over the years, the pair only dabbled with their leather hobby. Today, however, they spend their days in the shop, welcoming customers and working on pieces. From the time they opened the shop doors to now, the requests have been constant. Things naturally slowed during the COVID-19 pandemic, but because they frequently work with distance customers the orders continue to arrive, although at a bit slower pace.
“It’s been two or three years since we’ve not had something waiting in the queue on the workbench,” Hathaway says. “At one point, after a show, we had 40 orders in three months.”
These days, the orders for half-chaps, an album cover, and other custom requests still keep the shop busy. Hathaway can also craft leather skirts and dresses, adding fun touches like long, hairy fur pieces from New Zealand and Iceland. She utilizes existing patterns or designs her own.
“I like making patterns and putting things together like a puzzle,” she says.
Because Hathaway worked with distance learning and technology for more than 20 years in her previous positions at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, she was already using Zoom, FaceTime, and other technology with their long-distance clients, designing custom pieces without meeting the client in person. One particularly complex project she named “Nick’s Ultimate Duffle Bag” evolved entirely over the phone and via email.
“Nick had some specific needs which resulted in 40 separate pattern pieces and lots of pockets,” she explains.
Some of the couple’s most gratifying experiences have been creating unique pieces for challenged horse riders and heirloom items such as their baseball glove valet tray.
With seven leather sewing machines, Lakeland Leatherworks can create most any design imagined, including intricate lacing. Turnaround time on a custom project depends on the complexity and the current backlog of orders.
Jean Garny has been working with the Hathaways for the last three years and brings her lifelong leather tooling and carving expertise to the craft table. Her intricate tooling and carving, designs, and colors grace many pieces. Surrounded by hundreds of leather tools, she can create flowers, basket weaves, lines, curves, and most anything a customer imagines, including a recent photo album cover of a desert scene.
One aspect of the business that’s been challenging for the couple is finding leather to begin the process.
“We buy through U.S. sources whenever we can but there are only six tanneries left in the U.S.,” Hathaway says. “Most of the hides are imported. One of my favorite places for softer bag and apparel leather is the Hide & Leather House in Napa, Calif., which imports some of the finest leather all over the world.”
Under normal circumstances (without the threat of a pandemic), customers can find the couple selling their wares at the annual Germantown Charity Horse Show in Germantown, Tenn., and at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Ky. Donna is always involved with the Memphis Fashion network.
“We don’t do this because we want to be filthy rich,” Tom Hathaway says with a laugh. “It’s a pleasure to do something you enjoy and make a living at it while keeping the art of leather-crafting alive before it becomes a lost art.”
Donna says perhaps they have only one regret when it comes to their work — they didn’t create enough! “I think if we had made time to keep leather work even a small part of our busy professional lives, we would have enjoyed it even more and could have benefitted from the creativity and relaxation.”