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Maker | In Blue Handmade


Maker | In Blue Handmade

Heath Stiltner

Q: How did you get started with In Blue?

A: In 2008 I quit my job in the music business in Chicago and moved to a small farm town in Southern Illinois. I bought a sewing machine on the way down in an attempt to be more self-sufficient. As fate would have it, I loved to sew, and I have been sewing for a living since! I started In Blue later that year, and now we are a team of 10 full time makers working in a large studio space in Asheville, NC. We service more than 300 wholesale accounts and boast the highest sales record on in leather goods. 

Q: Were you always interested in creating leather goods?

A: I always loved leather, but it took me a while to realize it was something I could learn how to do.  When I started sewing, my dad encouraged me to challenge myself and sent me a remnant hide of leather from eBay. I played around with it and I loved it. Seven years later, I know that leather is definitely the medium for me! Hi dad! 

Q: Who taught you?

A: I learned most of what I know about leather-working through a wonderful person named Frank who lived right outside of Asheville. He passed away a couple of years ago, but he spent hours showing me amazing old leather patterns and tricks of the trade. 

Q: Did you know you would start your own brand, if not what spurred it?

A: I don’t think that I had a plan when I started my company. I was not sure what would be next for me when I stopped working in the music business, but I knew that I needed a creative outlet. This was not premeditated­ it was just life falling into place. The company and brand have evolved so much over the last 7 years, and so much of that has been due to my amazing team of leatherworkers, who have become like family. My team helps me define our brand with their dedication to our community, our environment (love these mountains so much), and our customer base.

Q: How do you get ideas for photo shoots?

A: We work with an amazing social media consultant and photographer: Chelsea Laine Francis. She handles most of our concept shoots. Chelsea lives in Austin, TX, and we phone conference and talk online all of the time about photoshoot ideas. She makes our vision come to life, and she adds a touch that we feel completes our aesthetic fully. 

Q: What are your inspirations? What inspired your products and you?

A: Music! Mountains! People! I made my first leather journal after watching Chuck Ragan play a show in Memphis, TN. I remembered working with him when he was touring with Hot Water Music, and then seeing him play solo sparked an idea. I kept wondering how he had created this amazing folk music, and I pictured him writing in a leather book. I drove straight home and started to create a leather journal. 

Q: How do your hobbies influence what you make?

A: My hobbies include playing guitar, reading, and spending time with my friends. My friends and the music we love have a giant influence on what I make. When I have a creative block, the thing that is most likely to pull me through is the perfect record or album, front to back, loudly played in my studio. My friends influence me through their conversation and their movements. I often think “so and so could really use a bag that included these features...” and then we will release a bag with a specific person in mind. 

Q: What has been your biggest lesson?

A: I’ve learned that, as the business grows, I must be adaptable. . We are constantly under review, and that can be emotionally challenging. Learning to handle rejection along with rejoicing in our successes can be a rollercoaster, but it is such an amazing experience. To be this invested in my daily work is something that I know I am lucky to have, and I hope that it translates into our product. 

Q: What's your favorite thing about creating and sharing your bags and leather goods?

A: It never stops feeling great to have such an amazing response to our product. This morning we watched the band Houndmouth play on the David Letterman show with our guitar strap. We are lucky to outfit some of the best and brightest young writers and musicians in the country, and it is an honor to do so. We love to see our product in use, and we cherish pictures of our customers using their journals, musicians playing in our straps, or seeing people on a random train in NYC carrying an In Blue Handmade bag. 

Q: What's been your best advice you've been given?

A: The best advice that I have ever been given is to “go my own way”. We do not have a standard business model, and we never will. I think that, especially in handcraft, it is important to forge your own path and make sure that you have a system that works for you. Being educated on standard business models is important, but when you’re creating a handmade product you really have to make your own decisions in order to help the business grow while staying true to your vision as a maker. 

Q: What's been your biggest challenge?

A: Keeping up! We are so lucky to have so many amazing orders, and we are constantly hiring new team members to help with production. It means several 3am nights in my studio heating up ramen noodles. My dogs have beds here and the coffeemaker is always running. I love it though. I thrive on it. It doesn’t seem like work, it seems like life in action.