Meet the Maker: Paula Kirkwood, crafted leather goods

Meet the Maker: Paula Kirkwood, crafted leather goods

Welcome to Hope and Story's Meet the Maker Series, where we chat to some of the people behind our favourite independent British brands. 

Paula Kirkwood

Paula Kirkwood hand makes leather bags, aprons and utility goods crafted in Brighton, England. Offering stylish functionality for both men and women, it's hard not to fall in love with her designs. 

I chatted to the wonderful Paula over a cuppa and got to know a little bit more about her craft. What struck me when speaking with her is the love she has of simply creating. Paula's happy space is in her studio, making things. We managed to drag her away from doing what she loves for half an hour to chat product sourcing, sustainability, future plans, surviving a pandemic and lots more....

Your background is in fashion. How did you move into bag production? 

'Yeah, I worked for a textiles charity for 12 years, since college. Then I went and had a child, so that often throws things in the air, doesn't it?! Um, yes, I had a small person, then very shortly afterwards I was made redundant. So, it was a case of 'what am I going to do whilst bouncing a baby'. I've always loved working with leather and making my own bags, and I thought OK, I can get a sewing machine and work from home and still be a mum. So that's how it started, at my kitchen table, taking old leather jackets apart and seeing what leathers I liked to work with. And it went from there really.  

That must have been pretty stressful, trying to combine life as a mum and running your own business...

'Yes! It was like, 'she's asleep for an hour and twenty minutes, let's go go go!' I would just sew furiously. You know, lots of late nights. But that was kind of good, it gave me time to work on ideas and see what did and didn't work. The aim was by the time I got my daughter to school I would be fully up and running with a place to formally launch from.  

And you aren't just creating beautiful products. You do all your own marketing and PR. That's quite a few plates to spin at once..

'That is a constant battle. But it's just one of those things, when you are running your own business you have to focus on everything and timetable all of the different bits in to try and make them work.'  

We love the Box Handbag from Paula Kirkwood's collection

We love the Box Handbag from Paula Kirkwood's collection

Do you find you get enough time to do the 'making', the bit that you really love? 

'Yeah. My daughter is nine now so I know that between 9-3pm everyday I am in my workshop and that's my happy space. That's the time when I can just go, it's just me, and I make. Everything else (social media, dealing with customers, admin) has to happen outside of that. Categorising time is really important or else it would be a bloody nightmare.'

Challenges must have thrown themselves up at you along the way. What's inspired you to keep going when at times it surely would have been easier to have just found a job?

'One: I've discoveredI'm not very good at working for other people. Two: the biggest thing for me is having that element of joy in my day. I'm a maker, I'm a creator.'

'My other half will tell you...if I'm not making something, I'm miserable' 

When I am making products that I class as high quality and then sell, and then the joy of someone receiving that.... that whole circle, I've worked out, that that's what makes me really happy. More than anything, that's what keeps me going, the happiness thing.'

What attracted us to you was the simple elegance of your designs, with a real attention to detail in the finish. How would you describe your style? 

'Minimal design. Functionality. It has to just feel luxurious, in a really simple almost classic way. But with a little modern edge, there's always something just ever so slightly different. And wearability. I want people to love it and for the product to go on and on and get better with age.' 

Do you have a favourite piece?

My belt bags. They've been my best seller through this strange time. They come in lots of colours and are very handy from most occasions. I'm currently working on the latest iteration.'

The Belt Bag is a best seller, and it's not hard to see why

Can you tell us a bit more about the leather you use?

'My main focus is on vegetable tanned leather because it doesn't use chemicals. It's a natural tanning process that creates the colour which is all from nature. So barks and flora and all of natures goodies. In turn, the leather itself as it is worn by the person will age in it's own way based on light exposure, oils from the skin that kind of thing... it will become more supple with a greater depth of colour.'

So the same cut of leather could look completely different on my bag to yours after six months? 

'Completely. I try to document that. At the end of the day, it is skin, it will tan. It's only chemicals in some leathers that will stop that process from happening but I love the journey of how that product changes'

From the sourcing of leather to finished handbag arriving at my door, can you briefly explain your supply chain? 

'I'm lucky enough that right next door to my workshop I have a leather supplier for my veg tan. That's really important to me because he's a small business too and we can communicate easily and we support each other. I only use solid brass in my work which is from a foundry in the UK. All my packaging is from a local firm here in Brighton who use recycled cardboard. I try and keep everything either local or in the UK as far as possible. I'm lucky in Brighton because there's a community and we will all share eachother's skill sets. 

That must have been so important over the past 12 months where suddenly the world has felt a lot smaller. Have you found that it's helped you having a community around you? 

'Oh god yeah, massively. Again, having my leather supplier next door is really helpful. We had to smash and grab stock wherever we could at the start of lockdown. I was able to be on-hand for people... 

'For me it's been amazing because there's a lot more people who are looking to local brands. I can make a bag and drop it off locally, which people wouldn't have thought of before. My UK sales have definitely gone up... people want to trust what is coming to them and know who is making it'

There is now a lot more eyes locally on what I do which is really great.' 

How important is it to you that people understand your story and that you are based in the UK? 

'Yeah I think it's really important...

'Wherever you are you should look local because there's always someone around you who can make something. And you'll have more connection with them because they're local... you can go and see them, where they work from, you can learn a bit more about them as a person' 

It's a lot about trust, isn't it? For me personally, I like to know where something has come from and who has made it and have a chat with them if I need to. And not have to pay a tonne of shipping costs or struggle with returns. So for me it's super important to keep it local, yeah.'

Finally, what's attracted you to work with Hope and Story?

Firstly, I really like the aesthetic of the site and the story behind why Betsy set it up. I love that it's a female run business. Importantly I like the other brands you are working with and the ethos behind them runs alongside my own values so it feels like a comfortable fit. I love how you want to promote us as British makers. 

You can shop Paula Kirkwood products here