We had the good fortune of connecting with Mark & Jessica Leonard and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Mark & Jessica, let’s talk legacy – what do you want yours to be?
We had a customer visit the shop shortly after a trip to Italy. They exclaimed that the store was almost exactly like an artisan’s shop from ancient Rome. Those shops were long and narrow with goods for sale on display in the front, a workshop behind that, and living quarters in the back. This is precisely how our shop is laid out, and while we don’t live in the back, we have a kitchenette and sleeping area where we have been known to nap. The similarities don’t end with the floor plan. The workshop is inhabited by skilled artisans making unique items, with care, one at a time. Folks investigating our wares will be served by the people who made them. In the event that we don’t have the hat you love in your color or size, we will take your measurements and make it just for you. If we aren’t too busy, we will even take you into the shop to let you look at and touch the materials, and choose exactly what you would like. No matter how many times we say “we make everything right here, in the back of the shop” with a wave at the space behind us, it takes a long time for this to sink in – sometimes it never does. If we were to dream big, the greatest legacy we could imagine would be to be part of inspiring both more stores like our own, and more support for them. Whether ancient Rome or Richard Scarry’s Busytown comes to mind, we wish that we lived in a world where we could easily find beautiful, lovingly crafted items that are idiosyncratic to the town they are produced. Travelling would be so much more interesting if every town could offer shoes you had never heard of, a boutique with a seamstress sewing a style of shirt you hadn’t even imagined could exist, a jeweler integrating an iconic part of the local geology into their work… Of course, this dream can’t be realized if the shops aren’t sustainable. We work hard to provide a personal, meaningful experience to everyone who comes into the shop to admire our work, whether they make a purchase or not. Ideally, they will leave with something beautiful and useful that will become a regular and enjoyable part of their life. We like to imagine that whenever they slide their feet into their favorite slippers or don the hat that makes them feel like royalty, they remember their time in the shop. We hope they remember time and money well spent in the company of good folks who treated them with kindness and regard. We hope they are inspired not only to return, but to seek out similar experiences with other artisan shops. It is nice to think that once in a while, we might be some part of another brave artisan’s decision to make a go of it in their city. We hope we live in a world that will choose to support them. The ultimate legacy would be playing a part in bringing about a world where “we make everything right here, in the back of the shop” has reclaimed some real estate both in business districts and people’s hearts.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
We did not plan to become sheepskinners, so much as we jumped at the opportunity to learn a new craft and have more agency in our own lives when David Radin (the founder of Ithaca Sheepskin and a friend of ours) unexpectedly asked if we would be interested in buying his business. Incidentally, David didn’t plan to be a sheepskinner either. He just wanted a pair of sheepskin baby booties for his daughter, couldn’t find what he wanted, and decided to make them himself. Somewhere in there, the whole thing got pretty out of hand, and here we all are today. We’re sticklers for quality, and we immediately set about updating the designs and sourcing the finest shearling we could find. For the first few years, we wanted to try making everything we could imagine from sheepskin. Slippers, coats, hats, mittens and all were great, but why not beer cozies? bags? quivers for arrows? dog coats? sleep masks? earrings? leg warmers? potholders? We have learned that an amusing cardinal rule of the sheepskin craft is: No matter what you make out of sheepskin, someone will eventually buy it. We have also learned: just because you can make it, that doesn’t mean you should. To succeed, we need to exist in a narrow overlap where art and production meet, especially now that we sell online. For a new product to succeed, it has to be worthy of a price point that justifies the time of talented crafters and the valuable materials needed to produce it. It has to be possible to replicate it closely enough that an online customer will feel that they have received what they ordered (we do display and sell one-of-a-kind work in the shop, and hope to create a nook for them on our site one day). Pieces that are relatively novel to us have to be tested for at least a year before we can feel great about selling them. Ideally, there is a degree of pre-existing awareness of a given product, or it can be very challenging to sell it. Our vest is one of the creations we are most proud of, and also an exception to that last lesson. While they aren’t unheard of, shearling vests aren’t exactly an everyday item. We are on a crusade to change that. We aren’t sure whether we are more motivated by our desire to sell them, or the simple fact that we love them and they have changed our lives for the better! In 2016, Mark presented Jessica with a concept for a a vest that he wanted for himself. Jessica patterned it out and made the prototype for Mark, who proceeded to wear it… all the time. He wore it instead of a sweater, he wore it instead of a light coat, he largely replaced his bulky winter coat by wearing the vest under a wind and rain proof shell. He wore it virtually every day from September to May here in upstate NY. In 2018, sheer jealousy motivated Jessica to design a counterpart that would fit a curvier figure. The sleek fit, clean lines, and functionality as a layering piece rely on seams that have no added bulk – we have managed to master a tricky technique with a rather specialized sewing machine that allows us to join pieces of shearling closely but without overlap. Our vest genuinely feels like a valuable contribution to a wardrobe, and there aren’t many other things out there that can do the same job. It may be that nothing can do the same job with the same understated panache. While the vest is obviously a bit unique, our slippers might not seem that special – at first glance. Sheepskin slippers are probably one of the more popular sheepskin items. They have a commodity-like similarity, the basic design is the same whether they are mass produced overseas in large quantities or lovingly stitched in an RV by folks selling sheepskin on the craft show circuit. We have worked and re-worked our slippers until we can finally say – we believe them to be the best sheepskin slippers out there. We start with only the finest US and New Zealand shearling. The plushness of the shearling we use for the insoles borders on ridiculous, because we did not want to use any foam or other synthetic layers in the soles. The outsole is light, flexible, and extremely durable vegetable tanned cowhide. We may be the only craft manufacturer applying binding to the slippers – the strip of leather that runs around the bottom edge, protecting the stitching and beautifying the slippers. After trialing many materials, we have found what we believe to be the perfect binding – an attractive, durable, luxurious rich brown leather. You might not find slipper binding as exciting as we do, but we promise it plays a big part in the finished effect, and the leather is so much more fantastic than the woven synthetic stuff used on most mass market slippers. We want the world to know that everything you buy had to be made by someone. When you buy from Ithaca Sheepskin, you are supporting a small team of passionate and dedicated artisans in the beautiful Finger Lakes region of New York, who carefully craft every piece with the desire to have it find a home where it is cherished and used regularly. You are supporting a little store that people fall in love with and return to year after year, often to simply reconnect with the couple of offbeat crafters who welcomed them in and sent them home with a treasure they didn’t know they were looking for.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
It’s awful here. There are only 30 or 40 fantastic places to eat within two blocks of our front door. The circus school is too much fun. The four craft coffee roasters can’t stop outdoing each other. It is a pain to decide which one of the waterfalls is the most beautiful, and really annoying that two of them are a part of the downtown area. You’ll want to stay far away from the Ithaca Farmers’ Market because you’ll waste an entire day just doing pointless things like looking at the lake, eating fresh local food, buying gorgeous crafts, and stocking your larder with the freshest seasonal food imaginable. There are too many trees downtown. The art museums and musical performances are disproportionately fabulous relative to the population of this small city, so we would want to stay away from those. Honestly, it is all so awful you’ll just be driven to drink at one of the many award winning wineries, cider houses, or distilleries scattered all over the region. What a nightmare.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
Crystal Cochell joined Ithaca Sheepskin in 2018, and if anyone loves the shop as much as we do, it is Crystal. She is a talented craftsperson, and inspired designer, and a loyal friend. When Jessica spent the second half of 2019 receiving cancer treatments 100 miles away from home, Mark had his hands full taking care of both Jessica and their two young sons. Without warning or much preparation, Crystal transitioned overnight from supervised work two days a week to near full responsibility for the shop. If Crystal wasn’t as brilliant, adaptable, and generous as she is, there may well not have been an Ithaca Sheepskin around for us to discuss.
Michael Hanlon Olivia Ashline