Katie is one of our most dedicated and knowledgeable artisans with a talent for doing everything and doing it well. Here, Liz interviews her to find out what makes the perfect bag and her favorite podcasts to listen to while working.
When you first began working at Lotuff, you didn’t have a background in this industry and learned how to do everything here. Now, you’re one of the most capable and proficient artisans we have- how did that transformation happen for you?
When I started here, there were only a few other people working in the studio, including a friend of mine. She had told me that Lotuff was looking to hire someone new, so one morning I just went to work with her. I thought I was only coming to ask for a job, but instead Lindy was like, “Can you paint? Here’s a paintbrush.” I hadn’t worked in production or anything before this, but because I went to college for studio art and majored in ceramics, I knew how to use tools and machines. Even though they weren’t all the same machines, a lot of it just comes down to having the right mindset to understand the physics behind them. If you’ve done any kind of art, too, you know how to take care of brushes and what angle to hold things at.
But there was still a lot I did learn. Even though some of the people I worked with had more skills than me, it felt like I was learning with them because every product we made brought new problems to solve and new things to work through. It was almost a good thing I had never made anything like this before, because I could bring some insight and a new perspective to people who were used to doing things in one particular way.
I started off by doing a lot of finishing, like putting on zipper pulls and edge painting (which I still do). There were only four of us [in the studio], so after the others were done stitching, I finished, monogrammed, and packaged. It gave me a sort of unofficial control over quality and also a lot of responsibility. I was the last person to touch a bag, so I knew that if anything was messed up, it was all on me. Later on, I learned to make pouches and wallets, and I probably spent about two to three months just on that. It was all probably very different for me learning the process than for someone starting now because there was much more free time to ask questions and experiment.
When we began making Tripps, for example, I remember the first few were totally crazy-looking, but it was a good learning experience- figuring out what works and what doesn’t. There was a part that I couldn’t fit the bag on the buffing wheel, so I suggested using a tool that wasn’t an official leatherworking tool to solve for this. So I felt like even though I was inexperienced, because we had such a small team my questions and ideas were just as valid as anybody else’s. I learned a lot in a short period of time. I never expected to work here as long as I have, but as time went on I started working fewer shifts at my other job and more here. It’s kind of nice when you start doing something that you have no experience in, and it turns out you’re actually really good at it.
As someone who’s good with their hands, what other opportunities would you have been able to look for if you hadn’t found your job here?
If [Lotuff] hadn’t fallen into place, I don’t know where I would have ended up, but I probably would have tried to find another cooking job. I spent probably the majority of my adult life working in a kitchen — multiple kitchens — and I used to take a lot of pride in my knife skills. I know that sounds kind of silly, but a lot of times when you’re a girl you don’t get taken seriously when it comes to things like that. In Florida, where I’m from, I spent years being the only girl in the kitchen and having to hear “that’s what she said” jokes a hundred times per shift, so I guess it took me a long time to realize that being skilled with your hands in one way can translate to being good with your hands in another way. When I came to Providence, I did get into sushi because I saw a documentary on a sushi chef and thought, “I can do that!” But even when I got a job at a sushi restaurant around here, the chef made it clear that he really didn’t think it was a job for a woman to do. I wasn’t allowed to do much there. So I’m glad that I’m doing something else, even though this skill is a lot more specific and specialized.
Here, I’ve only been given harder and harder things to do, which I like because it keeps me busy. And, even when I do have easy tasks, they’re things that three years ago I never would have thought I could do. Grinding zipper pulls is easy to me now, but back then I would have been like, “Can I try grinding the zipper pulls?” I’ve just been able to try more and more things, and they’ve all stuck, and I’m still here.
You’re probably the biggest champion for quality out of all our artisans. Why do you think that characterization applies, and what makes a bag perfect to you?
I notice details a lot. I think that’s because when I started here, if something came to me and it wasn’t right, I would fix it myself. I always see the big picture — finish these bags and get them out the door — but I also see a lot of the individual things. The people who work here the longest notice what’s right and wrong because we’ve done all this a million times. I like for things to be up to a standard because even though it’s not my name on the label, I would never want to feel like a part of something that’s not the best that it could be. Even when working in a kitchen, you don’t want to follow a recipe exactly and know that there still might be things you could have done to make it better.
For a perfect bag, I look to see that each step was done basically impeccably and according to how it was supposed to be executed. That’s because if the first step is done even slightly differently, it can affect each step of the whole process, and by the end, you could have a fully messed-up piece. It all really has to do with everybody doing their best on each piece, even if you’re doing the same thing 50 times in a row. You can’t ever burn out because it all carries on to the next person.
But, perfection isn't necessarily always everything. I really like the fact that each bag is touched by a bunch of hands and you can see the work that went into it. When you’re making everything by hand, you don’t always know what you’re going to get or what you’re going to do because you can’t treat every piece of leather like it’s exactly the same as the last. You have to adapt; there’s a lot of adapting with each piece to make it look as good as it can. Eventually, when you put five of the same bag all next to each other on a shelf, they look identical, but if you made them, you know they’re individuals. So sometimes, I’m almost protective of the things I’ve made: either I want someone to buy and appreciate them, or I want nobody to buy them ever!
Since you’re also passionate about finding and listening to great podcasts, what are some of your favorites to turn on while working?
I really like This American Life, Radio Lab, and Serial. I listen to a lot of NPR, too, and occasionally some politics-type podcasts. There’s this one called The Weeds that I’ve been listening to lately; they explain a lot of policy and platforms in ways that are easy to understand if you’re not really into politics- how things like that can affect regular people. That’s always the kind of thing I’m interested in, because I’m always in my little world of bags, but I like to know there’s a world outside. I also just downloaded this book called Adnan’s Story, which is about the main character from Serial. Before that one, I listened to a book about female Supreme Court justices.
Sometimes, when you’ve been doing this stuff for ages and working with your hands for awhile, there’s certain things that you can multitask. For me, it’s almost like I need to be listening to a book while I’m working. I really like learning, and the only problem is that sometimes I’ll listen to a podcast or book, and my brain is overflowing with info but I can’t share it with other people because then we’ll all get distracted. I don’t even remember the last work of fiction I listened to- it’s always true crime, politics, autobiographies, and occasionally a memoir. So yeah, I’m not really a fiction kind of person. I’m a Capricorn, I like to keep it real (laughs).
You’re known for having a soft spot for animals- do you have pets of your own?
Well. I am a single mom of two cats named Toby and Byron. I found Toby by a dumpster in Florida when he was a tiny kitten, and I found another home for him at first, but then his owner gave him back and he’s been with me ever since. And I got Byron from the ASPCA in Florida. I will say it’s been harder to find places to live because of them, but somehow, it’s worked out.
When I was younger, I had rats and dogs and a bearded dragon, all at different times. If I currently had a situation where it worked out, I would love to have a dog, too. It takes a lot of willpower for me to not just adopt one- if you take me to an animal shelter, I can’t guarantee that all the dogs will still be there when we leave.
Bonus question: If Byron worked at Lotuff, what position would he have?
He likes thread and all other types of string, so I guess he would be a stitcher or something. My cats couldn’t work here, though. They would distract everybody with how cute they are. But I have one of those orange leather key fobs at home that I used to keep my keys on, and now it’s just a cat toy- it’s like, “I made that for you guys!”