Jennifer Stilwell found her footing while at sea, both literally and emotionally.
After apprenticing with master leather craftsmen in the U.K. and Argentina, the ship captain’s daughter began traveling the world by boat with a support organization for indigenous artisan groups and women’s collectives. While on board (and mending a broken heart), she began creating her own leather pieces as a sort of meditative practice and healing outlet.
Out of that experience, her leather goods company, All Hands, was born. And it continues to evolve and support that global ethos, as supple bags and belts give way to a brand new innovative home goods collection, including everything from leather throw pillows to planters.
Here, Stilwell speaks candidly about the realities and rewards of living a dream:
Live The Process: What inspired you to travel the world in a ship supporting local artisans?
Jennifer Stilwell: A couple of different cosmic factors: I had just done a leather apprenticeship in Argentina and, at the end of that year, I realized that in order to be happy I needed to be working with local artisans and supporting local production and craftsmanship—wherever that might take me.
Invigorated by this new energy, I returned to NYC only to find out that the love of my life had been having an affair. I posed a question to the Universe: How can I continue to work with artisans and also physically remove myself from a place that is causing me so much sadness? Somehow, the job of working with an emerging artisan development fund manifested itself and they specifically needed someone who would be comfortable spending long periods of time on a ship doing a combination of product development, fundraising and sourcing for the fund.
Being on a ship was not a foreign experience to me; my father is a ship captain and I was raised on and off ships my whole life. I knew I could do this and I literally begged for the job. Next thing I knew, I was on a ship in the Arctic Circle, surrounded by such intense beauty and, for the first time, really dealing with my sadness and the falling apart of a significant relationship. My only option was to dive into my work during the day and keep myself busy with leather projects in my cabin at night. I named my company All Hands, not only as a nod to the nautical life I was living, but also to the fact that, across many world religions, hands are revered as a healing tool. And, here I was, using my own hands to heal myself.
LTP: How did your passion for leather work develop?
JS: I have always been into leather. I am half Argentine and, where I grew up in Argentina, we lived next to a slaughter house. This may sound morbid, but I think it really shaped me. It would be unjust to underestimate its impact on my life. I have a deep appreciation and love for animals and, although this may sound trite, I wish to honor the animals that we eat.
Fast forward many years into my adulthood, I knew I needed a life change in terms of my “career.” I was dying on the inside when I looked up at my computer, inside my cubicle. It struck me one day that I needed to work with my hands. I thought about going back to school to get a a proper design degree, so that one day maybe I could design for someone somewhere, but I realized that I might end up in a position to similar to my current one. So, I decided to apprentice and I chose leather almost instinctively. It seemed like a no-brainer.
The first day I stepped foot into the studio of the leather worker I was to apprentice under, I was hooked. I’ve never looked back. I really, really love making stuff and, for the first time in my life, I get to let my creativity really soar. The bags, the home goods, anything else I make, just all comes from that same place inside of me to honor the raw material, my roots and my fear of not living who I am.
LTP: What is your philosophy towards your materials, both ecologically and aesthetically?
JS: It is extremely hard to find natural vegetable-tanned leathers in an array of colors and thickness, so right now I am at about 50/50. This is because it is a dying form of tanning and not really supported by the industry. That being said, most cow leather is a byproduct of the meat industry. In fact, I only use leather that is a byproduct.
Going back to my upbringing in Argentina, leather to me seems like it shouldn’t be totally perfect. The leather I grew up on had tick marks, had chicken wire fencing marks, sometimes little bite marks etc. I always thought this was cool looking, and it meant that the animals lived outside! It wasn’t until I was older and working around a lot of luxury leathers that I realized that the ones that were the most perfect, with absolutely no marks, were that way because they were from CAFO cattle. Connecting these dots was extremely powerful for me. I know that not everyone will understand why they received a bag from me that might have some marks here and there, and I am always okay with swapping the bag out for one that is less marked up, but I will not in good conscience cut around every single little mark I see on the hide. I try to waste as little as possible, both for environmental reasons and also because it feels like the right thing to do to honor the hide I am working with.
LTP: What are your future goals for All Hands?
JS: My immediate future goals are to figure out a way to continue to do what I love and be able to support myself doing it. That’s it. If I grow a ton as a business, that’s great. That means I can provide for myself and my loved ones. If I stay about the same, that’s okay too. I am truly happy to say that what I am doing is of my making. I chose this, I worked hard towards it, and I am doing it—that is all I can ever really ask for. Day in and day out, we have infinite choices. I choose to work with people whose workshops I can visit, who have the same dreams I do, who understand that we can all help and support each other. My manufacturer is three blocks away, my leather supplier is a short subway ride away and I can honestly say that if I hadn’t fostered these relationships in my city, with these people, that I would not be where I am today. Supporting my local community has not only been altruistic, but has been essential to the health and well-being of my company.
LTP: As a world traveler, do you have any personal rituals that keep you centered?
JS: I only have one ritual that I do on every single trip. It’s sort of cheesy and kind of borders on OCD, but here it is: when I am taking off on a plane, when we start going down the runway, I close my eyes and I pray. It’s always the same prayer. I thank the universe for allowing me to have the experience I just had (if I am leaving somewhere) or am about to have (if I am heading somewhere). I thank the universe for allowing me to experience the culture, the people and for giving me the courage to wander in the world. After this little prayer, I go back to reading the Skymall catalog or whatever, but no trip of mine can start without that ritual. It also sets the intention for me: to stay open to the experiences I am about to have, to remain loose, to integrate into the culture. Once I do that, I figure that whatever happens—good or bad—is all part of the experience and I am to remain humble and grateful.
LTP: What does happiness look like to you?
JS: Happiness looks sunny. It looks warm. It has that quality of light that is inviting and seductive. It looks like a gathering of people you love. It feels like looking back at your life and the decisions you’ve made and being okay with it. It looks like something or someone beautiful looking back at you.
LTP: What does it mean to you to "Live The Process" and how do you do that every day?
JS: As someone who works with her hands, “living the process” is something I have to do everyday. However, I realize it’s more than that. It’s about also honoring the process. I have so many steps I have to go through in order to complete a product from start to finish. On any given day, I will look at my work table and say to myself, “How do I motivate today to get through this process?” and then I remind myself of those times in the ship cabin, where so much healing took place as I just rolled up my sleeves and got to work.
There are days, weeks even, where I just wish I had all the money in the world so I could surround myself with a bunch of leather artisans and have them do all the work. I get so ahead of myself with ideas or want things to happen so quickly sometimes. Running a small business is so overwhelming at times. You get into it thinking you will always be creating and then slowly it turns into invoicing, ordering cardboard boxes from Uline, whatever. When I get overwhelmed with this stuff, I actually take a minute to thank my lucky stars because I realize what it all means is that I am doing it. I step away from the email, I go back to my work table and I get to work. I chose this life and I am doing it.