Nicholas Hollows, Craftsman
If you admire American heritage brands like Carhartt, Levis, Red Wing and Pendleton, you will understand why I wanted to share the works of art from Nicholas Hollows, who is the founder, designer and craftsman behind the brand Hollows Leather. Nicholas believes mundane objects are sometimes the most important- he wants the objects that we use everyday to be imbued with personal significance and purpose.
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
I wanted to be an X-Man. Nightcrawler, specifically. When I realized that probably wouldn’t happen, I really wanted to draw comic books. I spent a lot of my free time drawing.
How did Hollows Leather come to be?
My wife’s uncle was a cop with a leatherworking hobby. He was fatally shot while trying to stop a pharmacy robbery before either of us were born. Sarah’s dad kept a box of his leather scrap and tools in the garage that I kept scratching my chin about. At that time I was using this nasty duct tape wallet that I had made a few years earlier. It was getting all sticky and gross, so I decided it was time to make something with those scraps.
So it started with the indirect inheritance of this box, a handful of DIY projects, then projects for friends. I ended up making more stuff than I had use for, so I posted pictures online and people liked them. I get pretty wrapped up in my hobbies, so the money from anything I sold went right back into buying more leather and more tools, the whole thing snowballed from there. Eventually I decided to stop being a bike mechanic with a leather hobby, and become a leather guy with a bike hobby.
What is your process like?
For a long time all of my projects were custom, so I was getting a lot of input from customers, saying, “I like this wallet that you made, but maybe you could add this…,” so there’s sort of a collaborative aspect with each customer. That back and forth helps a lot. I spend a lot of time discussing the details of a project, deciding what color goes where, how the aesthetic considerations are going to mesh with the practical features we need. It’s also really iterative, I’m always looking back on my previous work and finding ways to improve based on field testing and things that I’ve learned about technique, materials, new hardware finds, all that. Making each project better than the last one is my fuel.
There’s something about leather as a material that’s also very inspiring. Different hides, different finishes, different tanning processes all yield a different feel, and sometimes that feel is what makes the design. If you try to force your agenda onto a piece of leather, it never turns out quite right, you have to compromise with it.
My actual work day is pretty unstructured, I listen to a lot of music and audio books when I’m cutting and stitching a project. That stuff is really time consuming and audio books are the perfect way to make 2,000 stitches feel relaxing instead of tedious. For better and worse, the borders between work and life are really fuzzy. My former living room is now almost all workshop, the closet is leather storage, and a similar colonization has happened to my brain.
What is something you had to learn the hard way?
I had to do a lot of trial and error in the beginning before I made anything that I felt genuinely proud of, but in general that process of learning how to make things feels pretty natural to me. On the other hand, pretty much everything about running a business was learned the hard way, or at least the stupid way. Long way to go on that still.
Also sometimes things get lost in the mail. Nothing sucks more than pouring all of your time and energy into something and then it vanishes before its new owner can enjoy it.
What has been your favorite project/product?
A friend of mine did a lot of web design work for the Hollows Leather site, which I repaid by making a leather shoulder bag in the style of old postal bags. That was a really fun project since I had to use some different techniques than usual, and the lack of time constraint let me explore a lot of different ideas. I’d like to do more luggage-type projects down the road. There’s a special bond that forms between a person their travel gear that I find very appealing.
I also really enjoy working with Archival Clothing. We share a lot of interests and goals, the fact that they like my work means I’m doing something right.
Best advice you could give to someone who wants to make handcrafted durable goods?
Be relentless in the pursuit of excellence. Don’t ever let yourself take a step backwards in the name of doing things faster or easier. If you think of a way to do things better, that’s how you do it from now on.
What is one thing most people would be surprised to learn about you?
I’m a doughnut fanatic. My doughnut of choice is the sour cream glazed old fashioned. Minneapolis is really badly lacking in this department, so pretty much anytime I travel, questing for doughnut shops becomes a major theme of the trip. I someday hope to meet someone who crafts old fashioned doughnuts with the same level of obsession that I put into my leather work.
What is your favorite tool?
I’ve been a big tool geek since long before I started working with leather, so I love any tool with a really specific job. I think that one of my favorite leather tools is the Japanese skiving knife. Skiving knives are used to thin a piece of leather down to a lighter weight, and there are lots of variations on the skiving knife. Most of them are pretty weird, over thought contraptions, but the Japanese version is just a simple straight blade on a simple handle. It does the job just as well as all of those others, and it’s much more versatile.
How do you define success?
I’m gonna have to go with Bob Dylan on this one; “A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night and in between does what he wants to do.”
How do you think we can make the world a better place?