By Robin Gallaher Branch. Photography courtesy of Biscuit Leather Company
One of the first things Tracy Wooten, a busy French teacher in a Montessori school in Homewood, Alabama, does when she enters her classroom is to put her purse on a table’s corner. It’s a biscuit-colored leather bag, big enough to hold folders, the multitude of papers any teacher carries, plus her eyeglass case and phone.
“The children see it all day. They love the look and feel of it,” Wooten said. “They love everything about it.”
Wooten’s custom-designed leather bag is the work of her friend, Becky Stayner, owner of Biscuit Leather Company in Homewood, a Birmingham suburb.
Stayner named her company after the way she likes her buttermilk biscuits:homemade, fresh, and topped with cold butter and honey.
Warm biscuits are honey brown, and so is her work. Stayner makes leather purses, the kind with straight lines, cross stitching, pockets (inside and outside)—and most important, the kind that actually improves with age. “The leather doesn’t fold in on itself,” Stayner said.
Describing her bags, Stayner smiled, “They’re expensive, but you will hand them down to your children.”
Stayner, 59, added artisan leathercraft to her photography career about three years ago. She is a professional food photographer and shoots pictures for magazines including Cooking Light. Stayner grew up in eastern Kentucky, in Hazard and then Lexington. Her father was a reporter for the Louisville Courier-Journal. Stayner and her husband Owen met in photography school. He photographs buildings.
Stayner loved both the shooting aspect of photography and the film itself. Using a 4 x 5 view camera and going under a black hood, she photographed food. Essential elements of a good photo are the food’s presentation and the lighting.
“I was dragged kicking and screaming into digital,” she said. “We lost a lot of the tactile process of film with digital, and I miss it.”
About three years ago she happened to see a friend’s old leather bag on a banister. “We traded skills. I photographed her children and she taught me how to make a leather bag,” Stayner said.
Stayner is both gifted with her hands and has an artist’s ability to see things. Her two careers coincide because both require spatial relationship, an ability to see an image on film and an ability to see a finished product.
“I’ve always been a detail-oriented person. Food photography and leather require that,” Stayner said.
“Becky has a good eye,” Wooten said.
Anne Couch, a Birmingham artist, is another who bought a bag, the popular seller Stayner calls a messenger bag. The two met at a friend’s home during a party for three vendors. “Becky and I hit it off immediately,” Couch remembered. “She told me I needed a new bag. When I saw what she was selling, I instantly knew I could keep that bag forever.”
Couch describes herself as a minimalist. She says the bag lets her “know where everything is. It’s just perfect.” She slings it cross-body, from the right shoulder to the left hip. “It goes with everything. It just does,” Couch said. “It’s year-round and looks great in the summer with whites and great in the winter with blacks.”
And Couch enjoys the compliments. “Honestly, I’ve never in my life been asked by so many strangers, ‘Where did you get your bag?’ It happens all the time,” Couch said.
Wooten also appreciates comments on her purse from a group known, well, to be finicky. “I’m 50 and millennials love it! I feel young and hip!”
Tiffany Vickers Davis, co-owner of Nourish Foods, is a typical Biscuit customer in the sense that she and Stayner are friends and Homewood neighbors and Stayner solved her problem. “I had just started my own business and had a two-year-old son. I was shlepping so much stuff. I needed something that looked good and could tow the line. I brought all of my ‘things’ to Becky so she could get an idea of what I wanted. I brought a sippy, a lovey, a computer, a clipboard and some files, plus the typical purse items,” Davis said.
That was in 2014. Stayer made her a large bag, blonde with navy stitching And now? “It is more beautiful than ever. The leather is dark and worn. The stitching is solid and the bag still stands up straight!”
The standard bag is six inches deep, 13 ½ inches tall and 15 inches wide at its widest point. The bags are expensive (think a basic rate of $450) for a number of reasons like quality materials, time invested, and a Biscuit principle: a living wage.
Stayner explained it this way. A messenger bag’s leather is about $100—and American. “Almost all our leather is from American tanneries,” she said. The work is hand punched, cut, sewn, and finished. “It takes 12 hours of work to make a bag,” she said. Although she started out doing it all, the work proved too arduous. “One person cannot do it all day after day. The repetitious motion becomes painful,” Stayner said.