One of the biggest benefits of running your own business is being able to ask your own questions. Sometimes they are not always easy questions and may not come with the answers you want to hear, but you can tell pretty quickly whether or not someone wants to be transparent. I immediately felt that in speaking with Brittany Cole Bush (aka BCB and Cole) of Shepherdess Holistic Hides.
An area of textiles that has always intrigued me is better understanding the process of working with hides. After a brief conversation with BCB, I was eager to learn more about their process. I had an idea of what traditionally takes place during the process, but it wasn’t until hearing more that I felt a deeper understanding and respect for the story they wanted to share.
Shepherdess: Holistic Hides was founded by Laura Schoorl and Brittany Cole Bush in 2014. Initially intending to work with hides for accessories they switched gears once seeing the hides whole. It meant more to them and they saw an opportunity to embrace the animal and share the story of a life. They saw it through a unique lens where they could focus on regionally and ethically raised sheep and goats with the entire process built around local sourcing and tanning. Determined to forge responsible connections with farmers, ranchers, tanneries, and consumers they are leading the way to more thoughtful approaches in the industry. Check out more from the interview with Brittany Cole Bush:
Did you ever think you’d be running the business you are today? What were some of the most impactful moments that led to this as a career?
Brittany Cole Bush: The start of Shepherdess was purely organic. We didn’t intend to start a business, but one thing led to another and it became clear that there was certainly a demand from folks who want to be connected closer to the source of something so special like a hide of a once living animal.
Both Laura and I had been working with hides in our own leatherwork for some time and the idea arose to source hides from regionally raised sheep and goats, ideally with traceability as to where the animal came from.
From my experience and relationships within the sheep and goat industry, we were able to do a small pilot project where we sourced fresh pelts, had them tanned and with the finished hide intended to use them in our designs. I was experimenting with hair-on-hide wallets and Laura had several beautiful designs developing with bags, clutches, wallets, and slides which have gone on to be loved by many.
The hides turned out gorgeous and too dense and fluffy for us to use for our purposes and decided that they were beautiful as they were. Friends who saw them wanted them and so we ended up selling the first lot never with the intention to do so. We decided to try it out again with a few more and just kept on going with Laura bringing the hides to various events where she was selling Pansy, her organic cotton underwear line.
In terms of the most impactful moments of our work, I think that we can both agree that the most impactful or meaningful moments is when we visit farmers and their flocks, getting to know how passionate, loving, and mindful they are about their animals. Connecting with them surely is special and it’s rewarding to share with the end consumer the story of where these select hides come from.
Part of your journey began from issues that you saw in the industry, can you talk to us a little more about what that looked like?
BCB: In the process of carrying out our idea in sourcing California “raised and grazed” hides we learned that the majority of hides which are a by-product of the meat industry are baled up, put on shipping containers and sent off to China to either be wasted or turned into various products traded in the global commodity market. As advocates of the Fibershed movement of regionally produced fiber being sourced and processed with the most minimal carbon footprint, we decided that the hides too could stay closer to home and to share the honoring of the animals through using everything that they provide.
What goals did you have when you started Shepherdess and have they changed over time?
BCB: We never sought out with clear goals but just to keep it simple and as a side project that we both enjoy, primarily because we love the beautiful hides in our lives. I am also passionate about connecting the urban market to the realities of the sheep industry, the dedication of sheep farmers and ranchers, and opportunity that consumers have in supporting meaning work in agriculture and land stewardship through their purchasing power.
Can you share with us the lifecycle of the animals and the partnerships you have formed?
BCB: We source our hides that come from both small flock farmers and larger commercial sheep outfits. Depending on the model of the farmers and ranchers businesses, be it either producing fine wool or regionally raised lamb, the lifecycle of the sheep varies. There are many important and careful decisions made when raising livestock. The most critical are choices around the welfare and quality of life of the animals, and of course when they are sent to be harvested if they do not pass on naturally.
Being transparent what would you say to someone who is concerned about animal welfare?
BCB: The folks that we work directly with care deeply for their flock and the integrity of their operations. It certainly is not an easy lifestyle nor a lucrative business raising sheep for food and/or fiber, so it truly takes dedication and care to raise them. It’s undeniable how much pride and integrity the sheep producers that we work with have in the care and management of their sheep.
As dealing with hides correlates to the meat industry have you experienced any changes over time or have any concerns about its future?
BCB: I feel that there is naturally an evolution in all things pertaining to our food system, culture, environment, and the global economy as they are all connected. My hope is that people continue to learn more about the sources of what they consume be it the food we eat, the clothes we wear, and the products we use on a daily basis.
Diverting waste streams, sourcing things as regionally as possible and knowing the true story of what we consume to me is very relevant when touching on the topic of change. I’ve seen an increase in interest from urban dwellers about the story and background of these beautiful hides which makes me think that the consciousness is increasing around these significant subjects.
Processing hides can be a pretty chemically intensive process; can you share with us some of the methods your manufacturers use now and maybe some thoughts you might have on the future of doing so in the least environmentally harmful way?
BCB: Most commercial tanning methods are inherently chemical and water intensive. The most natural and ecologically sound tanning methods are some that have been used since the dawn of humankind. There are many incredible and dedicated individuals out there who have developed the skill and craft of natural tanning methods using things such as tree tannins, brain tissue or ammonia, which traditionally derived from urine.
We work with a multi-generation family operated tannery that uses a vegetable tanning method which does not utilize heavy chemicals such as chromium or formaldehyde. They use large wooden drums with sawdust after the hides have been washed, fleshed and tanned to soften the underside of the hide. It’s a pretty low-tech method that has been used for a very long time.
In fact, there are not many tanneries left in California or in the states in general, as much of the tanning has gone overseas to places where there are not strict environmental regulations. This means that many of the hides that people can find inexpensively in large chain stores are most likely tanned in places where public health and ecological impacts are much less regulated, if at all.
The more conscious people are about where things come from and demand from the market to provide more environmentally and socially sound options increases, the more industries will cater to these demands. This could mean the advent of several small tanneries to open, to then employ innovative practices for more environmentally and health-friendly processing of hides closer to home, while supporting the preservation of beautiful hides, that on a commercial scale are often wasted or lost in global commodity trade.
What do you want your customers to gain from their shopping experience and have you found trying to focus more locally has been cost prohibitive?
BCB: Education is key. We want people to enjoy these beautiful hides in their lives and also know and care about where they came from. We understand that the hides are not affordable to many but our goal is not to increase scale to reduce cost to then sell more. Maintaining consistency in price to respect the true value of the hides is important to us and to give back to the farmers and ranchers that we source select hides from.
We are grateful to loyal customers who too understand the value of the hides and are happy and willing to invest in something that will last a very long time in their lives. I always say that it’s a true investment of a lifetime!
How do we continue to engage consumers in responsible, local, and more sustainable products even if the cost is more?
BCB: By offering opportunities to consumers to learn about the impacts of their choices in what they buy through products that value-driven businesses sell, I feel that this is the best way to support growing conscious consumerism. Knowledge is power.
What is one of your biggest challenges in running a business of this nature?
BCB: Scale. How much can the business grow while maintaining our values and is this the scale viable to support us achieving our goals in our small business? I think scale is an issue for many small businesses who want to stay true to their core values.
If you had one wish or goal what would you like to see happen in the industry?
BCB: Systems that allow traceability in the processing of animals for food at a large scale. It’s hard to track which hide derived from which flock in the current larger scale processing facilities. An increased understanding between consumers and sheep producers to not only know where the hides come from but for folks to know who raised the sheep and also for farmers and ranchers to know how special the hides are to the end consumer I think is an important goal in moving forward.
If you could use a time machine to go back 15 years what piece of advice would you give yourself?
BCB: “Know the terms of any loans you take out; be kind, honest and generous; keep following passion instead of conformity because in 15 years you will be living an authentically rewarding life. Keep at it, girl! You got this!” ;)
Lastly, after a long day what is your favorite way to unwind?
BCB: Making dinner from food from farmers and ranchers who I know!
Thanks for taking the time to learn more and if you want to connect with Shepherdess, check them out here!