Cowboy craftsman: Long-time leather crafter shares his love for the art
Rozet – The tapping sound of mallet to leather fills the home of Matt Avery as he creates custom leatherwork from his basement. From maintaining his own tack, completing saddle repairs out of a ranch house and having a few good books, Matt found himself creating quality tack not only for himself, but others as well.
“I started in 4-H, but always wanted to do big projects like holsters, gun belts and saddles,” Matt says, noting his first saddle was made with the help of leatherworking books and self-teaching. “I’ll admit the first saddle is a little crude, but it’s held up over the years and I’ve learned a lot since then.”
Influence for creating
As a cowboy, Matt learned the basics of maintain his own tack, which inspired him to learn the craft. Plus, he was always looking to find quality tack for himself.
“It’s hard to find quality tack locally,” he says. “I enjoy quality tack and the only way I found it was to build it myself.”
While building his own tack, people began to see his work, and Matt’s craft turned into a business. At this point, he decided to further his education and take a few classes. In 1996, Matt traveled to Burbank, Calif. for a four-day class to study under Jim Jackson, who tools leather for Kings Saddlery.
“On my way there, I made up my mind that what I already knew about carving leather I would throw out the window,” Matt shares. “I wanted to learn how he carved, so when I got there I was in learning mode.”
Matt gives credit to Jackson for opening doors for him he never knew existed.
“He helped me learn different carving techniques, allowing for my flower work to really stand out and making my stem work flow together,” Matt explains. “He taught me a lot about finish work as well, which was one of the most important things I learned how to do.”
Progress over the years
Today, Matt has built well over 50 saddles, along with countless other projects.
“It’s neat to go to a branding and see numerous saddles I’ve built myself,” he shares.
For several years, Matt also built award breast collars for the Wyoming High School Rodeo Association. He shares, “Even today, 30 years later, I see those breast collars still being used. It’s a good feeling to know my work is holding up.”
Over the years, Matt has also built belts, earrings, bracelets, billfolds and many other pieces.
“The thing about leatherwork is customers will always want a custom piece made they can’t find anywhere else,” he says, sharing he often finds smaller orders most challenging, because of the level of customization.
“I usually carve wild rose flowers, but recently I had someone who wanted sunflowers, so I learned how to carve sunflowers,” Matt notes. “This is where I am challenged to learn more about the art.”
Matt never uses the same pattern twice. He hand draws a new pattern for each project he builds.
“I have a drawer full of plastic film with patterns on it, but I’ve never used the same one twice,” he says. “I’m constantly trying to improve my drawings and my artwork, so it does no good for me to copy the same pattern – I’d never improve myself.”
Matt skims through leather magazines and sites for new project ideas. He feels there is always something new to learn to make in the leather world.
“Sometimes I look at other people’s work to bounce some new ideas around – I always have to be learning to move forward,” he says.
A dying art
In the current world, Matt feels leatherwork is a dying art.
“People want things instantly now and don’t want to wait for something handmade,” he says. “Learning a meticulous skill like this takes patience, and it’s not done overnight.”
Matt feels fortunate to be passing his knowledge of leather craft on to his grandson. Together, they have built numerous projects and a couple saddles.
“It’s nice knowing it won’t end when I’m not around,” Matt shares.
Matt is heavily involved with his community and teaches leatherwork to local 4-H members. He shares the key is the willingness to learn – some students are patient and willing, and some are not.
He shares, “This also goes with life – you just have to be willing to put in the work to retain the skill.”
For more information, Matt can be reached at 307-680-1428.
Delcy Graham is a corresponding writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.