Born from a relationship built within the prop shop of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Sarah Kirkham and Anna Warren pooled their creative energy to form Tactile Craftworks. With an emphasis on timeless design and age-old leather technique, this collaboration produces beautiful laser etched journals and hand tooled flasks that invoke a traditional feeling with a modern twist. These talented women took some time to write about where they came from and where they are headed.
Maker Market- When was Tactile Craftworks born?
Sarah Kirkham and Anna Warren- Tactile Craftworks became an LLC in January of 2014, but it's been in the works for the last five years. We did our first craft fair together in 2009, each selling our own crafts- and a few items that we made together. Since then, we've been bringing our ideas and skills together to create the products that we make now. Our business has really solidified in the last two years.
MM- What kind of creative backgrounds do both of you come from?
SK/AW- Both of us have degrees in theater design and technology, and we both have a life long love of crafting. Sarah tried her first leather tooling project in grade school, and took the craft up seriously ten years ago. After taking a bookbinding workshop in college, she began making tooled leather journals. She's also tried her hand at jewelry making, mask making, weaving and fabric dyeing. Anna spent her middle school years in Odyssey of the Mind, a creative problem solving competition- which developed her love of the creative process and started her interest in theater arts. Her hobby crafts are embroidery and screen printing. We each have more than ten years of experience crafting for the theater.
MM- Anna- Your about page says a little something about an “army of tiny ninjas” and Maker Market needs to know more. What’s that about!?
AW- My husband and I collect little ninjas to hide around our house to 'protect' us. It all started when I brought a little ceramic ninja home from Chicago, and my husband hid him among some knick-knacks on our shelf. Since then, we've hidden little ninjas all over our house. Whenever we remodel anything, we make a camouflaged ninja to hide. Our denim-insulated walls have a little blue-jean ninja in them, and a ceramicist friend of mine made a tile ninja to go behind our bathroom walls.
MM- How did you ladies meet and what brought on your business partnership?
SK/AW- We met in 2008 when we were both hired to work as craftspeople in the prop shop at Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Our friendship developed quickly, and since our work tables were right next to each other, we had hundreds of hours while we worked to talk about ideas and dream up the next big thing. We dipped our toes in the waters of crafting together- and loved it. When we realized that we had each found a friend that would foster our creativity and encourage our endeavors- we knew we had a foundation worth building upon.
MM- What were some of your first products? How has your line grown and changed?
SK/AW- The first items that we made together were Sarah's hand bound leather journals embellished with Anna's tooled leather leaves. Journals were the meat and potatoes of our business for a while, and we also made flasks, coasters, and a few other odds and ends. Most of refining our product line has been a process of trial and error. We tried screen printing on our leather journals once- we loved them, but nobody else did. The first time we made our mason jar travel mugs, we made six- just to see how they'd do; now they are our best seller. We've also learned that we do better when we stay true to our own aesthetic instead of trying to appeal to many different tastes. We've worked hard to hone our products into a consistent and satisfying brand, and we're getting better at making choices that work in that regard.
MM- Can you describe your creative process as a partnership? How are the ideas formed and then realized?
SK/AW- We work as collaboratively as possible,which often means brainstorming on long car rides until an idea clicks. We both have equal say in design when producing something new. Anna has a knack for patterning and prototyping. Sarah has an eye for layout and graphic design. On the production side of things, each item we make has both sets of hands on it at some point. Sarah spearheads the carving, and Anna the laser etching, but we cut, pattern, dye, seal and stitch the items together. A big goal for our business is to someday have all of our brainstorming sessions while canoeing.
MM- How has your relationship with leather grown and changed throughout creating your products?
SK/AW- Our early leather goods fit more into a traditional style of leather tooling, using stamps and carving to make intricate patterns and designs. As we developed our style more, we began to create cleaner, carved designs that were more in keeping with our own aesthetic, but employed traditional processes to create. That's something that we really enjoy in our work, using traditional processes and techniques in new and different ways. Our first attempt at non-traditional leather working was to screen print images on to the leather- and while we got some nice results with the process, the products didn't speak to our customers. A real break-through for us was trying out the laser etching on our leather goods. It became clear right away that this would be a turning point for our business, and incorporating the new technology into our traditional craft has opened a whole new world of possibilities for us- allowing us to create richer and more varied goods.
As our business is growing, and we're using more leather, we're starting to really think hard about where our leather comes from and how it is made. We always try to buy our materials locally, so we are currently looking into developing relationships with tanneries here in Milwaukee and the Midwest. We like knowing that our products are connected to our community.
MM- How has Discovery World influenced your product and your process?
SK/AW- When we first met the Kohl's Design-It lab folks a few years ago, we'd had no idea of the supportive and creative community that was just around the corner from us. The first time we saw the laser cutters working, we lost our minds. Using the lab's technology to prototype our Atlas Series of laser-etched map journals has been invaluable to us. More than that, Justin Doll's team has been remarkably encouraging, urging us to try out all of our ideas, and taking the time to teach us how to use their technology and offer their insights into our process. Introducing the laser cutters into our process has also helped us to scale up our production. It's not an understatement to say that we wouldn't be where we are today without them- and we've made some pretty great friends along the way.
MM- What benefits do you see in selling your wares directly to the customer?
SK/AW-From a business perspective, selling directly to our customers is a great way for us to get honest feedback on our products and business. From an artisan's point of view, it's truly satisfying to make a connection with the people who buy our goods, and we think that our customers like to connect with us as well. We have both always liked the stories behind objects, so telling the story of how our product was made, and hearing the story of how our product will be used is very gratifying.
MM- What is currently inspiring you? Artists? Makers? Music? IG feeds?
SK/AW- We are always drawing from the long tradition of leather work and crafting; being a part of that tradition means a lot to us. We always get excited by other crafters here in Milwaukee- seeing their work and successes is inspiring and invigorating. We love old maps, the outdoors, campfires and canoes. Specifics? In our studio, we are currently listening to - Radical Face, Gary Alan Isakov, Oscar Isaac, The Decemberists, Mumford and Sons, Mountain Man, The Head and The Heart, Nina Simone, and anything bluegrassy. Instagram feeds we love- The National Parks, @helen_levi, @pendletonwm, and @hapticlab.We also spend way too much time on Pinterest.