Tanning leather hides the old-fashioned way is a laborious process. High-quality leather goods are made from full-grain raw hides tanned with oils drawn from vegetables, tree bark and nuts.
The old-school tanning process can take more than a month, but the results speak for themselves. Bags, wallets and belts made from this full-grain, "veg-tanned" leather can last a lifetime.
And there's something about making heirloom quality leather goods from veg-tanned leather that sits well with East Ridge couple Chris and Melina Holmes, who have started a company called Fox & Forest Leather out of a converted one-car garage at their house.
Chris Holmes said he got hooked on leather working during the pandemic, studying YouTube videos and making hand-stitched satchels and bags that he showed on social media. His first bag, which was inspired by a YouTube video tutorial, attracted lots of attention online.
"It got almost 100,000 views, 1,500 likes and a ton of comments from people saying how great it looked," he said. "I thought, 'Gosh, if I can get 100,000 views, there's no way I shouldn't be able to sell these.'"
He said that during the pandemic he was looking for a way to occupy his hours and slow down his mind. His existing job had gone slack and he needed an outlet. So he turned to the hive brain of YouTube to learn a hobby. An artist at heart, he said leather working emerged as a pastime that could be both therapeutic and profitable.
His wife, Melina Holmes, who works in an insurance office, picked up the hobby, too, and soon began making leather items to add to the inventory.
"At first we were making sales just to our friends or by word of mouth," she said. "(Later) we thought, 'We think there is a market for this, so let's give it a shot.' We started in the Chattanooga Market in March. That's where we get most of our sales."
Most weekends the pair can be found at the Chattanooga Market at First Horizon Pavilion or, in coming weeks, at the Holiday Market at the Chattanooga Convention Center. Being able to pitch the products in person has turned out to be crucial as they try to stress the long lifespan of their handmade goods.
"We started to realize there is definitely a market here, and price is not nearly as big a deal as I thought," Chris Holmes said. "It's just about finding the people who care more about quality."
He said one hand-stitched bag can take about 10 hours to make using veg-tanned leather and costs $500 to $600. The Fox & Forest website (foxandforestleather.com) offers items priced at $5 to $500 including a line of bags named after trees found in Tennessee including the cedar tote, dogwood fanny pack, sycamore satchel, maple tote and willow clutch.
The Fox & Forest line also includes accessories such as wallets, belts, dog leashes and collars, desk mats and coasters. Customizing is available. All the items are durable and basic in design and function.
"Simple and sturdy is what we're going for," Chris Holmes said.
The plan is for the business to one day be the sole means of support for the family. After the holidays, the Holmeses say they will shift their focus to internet sales so they aren't so dependent on in-person markets. Working every weekday and then selling on weekends can leave little downtime.
Still, the Holmeses say they gravitate to the workroom in their house, even when it's time to relax.
"The shop is in the house," Melina Holmes said. "Sometimes we agree, 'We are not going to work tonight.' But somehow we (find ourselves) both standing in the shop — working."
Slowly but surely, the word is getting out on the quality of the merchandise, and the customer base for Fox & Forest goods is growing, the owners say.
"The feedback we are getting is so much fun," Chris Holmes said. "Having people say, 'I'm a customer for life' is a really good feeling."