Hide & Chic

Ken and Pat Amann handcraft beautiful leather goods in the Mad River Valley

by Heleigh Bostwick

amannKen Amann has done leather crafting since college days, when he picked it up in California. He and his wife, Pat, are the owners of Amann Fine Leather in Fayston. They sell their goods at farmers’ markets, high-end craft shows, and Vermont Life’s catalog. Shelby is their goldendoodle.

“There are two things that sell leather,” says Ken Amann. “Smell engages a potential buyer, and touch, which makes the sale.”

“The way leather smells and feels brings back pleasant memories, whether it’s a baseball glove, a pair of shoes, or leather upholstery,” adds Pat Amann, Ken’s wife.

The Amanns are the owners of Amann Fine Leather in Fayston.

Ken recalls how he got started working in his craft at the age of 19. “I was attending Colgate University in the late ’60s and everyone was required to do a January internship,” he says. “My brother was going to medical school at USC. I was a psych major, with a minor in English, so I decided to do my internship there.”

While he was there, Ken noticed that his brother had started dabbling in leatherwork and decided to give it a try. After he returned to school he continued, buying a single piece of leather — all he could afford as a struggling college student — to make belts, bags, and sandals.

“Leather was a West Coast thing and there weren’t too many doing it on the East Coast,” he says. “I could have sold anything that was handmade leather. It was flying off the table and customers would even start arguing over the pieces.”

He graduated from Colgate in 1971 and spent a year traveling around the United States and Mexico in his van before returning home to Long Island. He started teaching history and social studies during the day and attended graduate school at night, obtaining his master of social work from Adelphi University in 1975.

“The leather business helped me pay for grad school,” he says. “I partnered with a guy who owned a leather shop and would bring the items to school to sell. It was a grassroots business driven by economic need, and that teaches you very well.”

He took a hospital job working 9 to 5, but continued his leatherwork at night and on weekends. “It was always a form of relaxation for me, a diversion from everyday life,” he says, as well as a source of extra money for his family.

Ken and Pat, also a social worker, met on a blind date in 1977 and were married a year later. For the next 30-odd years, the couple lived in Baldwin, N.Y., where they raised their two daughters, worked their “9-to-5 jobs,” and attended craft fairs on weekends. “I spent 11 years in graduate school, going nights,” says Ken

“The girls came with us when we sold on weekends and we used the craft biz as a way to teach life skills to our children,” says Pat. Katie, who is now 31, is married and living in Charlotte, N.C., while 29-year old Jan, who is getting married in September, lives in Denver, where she sells Amann products.

Pat recalls that they started coming up to Vermont in the late ’80s. “We would run to Vermont every chance we could get,” she says, laughing. They eventually bought a small condo, which they sold in 2004 when they bought their current home.

In 2008, they left their day jobs behind — Ken was teaching college and Pat was an elementary school social worker — and moved to Vermont for good.

Only then did they begin working full time in the leather business, which has gone by the name Amann Fine Leather since the early 1970s when Ken started out. “It’s a sole proprietorship, so there is no need to come up with a new name,” he says.

“To the locals I’m the leather guy, and I like that,” he says with a chuckle, adding that Pat handles the administration part of the business, anything technology-related, and sales.

Ken says that once a year they get in the van and head to tanneries in Ohio and Pennsylvania to buy leather, adding that the leather industry is a traditionally old-fashioned business that still operates on the premise of good faith and a handshake.

“We only buy the best quality,” Ken says proudly. “We go through piles of hides and handpick the skins.” He seeks only vegetable-tanned leather, which he says is an ecologically sound and superior tanning method where the hides are soaked for six weeks in tannic acid, naturally derived principally from bark such as hemlock and oak. “It’s the reason for that “leather smell” people like so much,” he explains.

Pat points out that they are very careful about buying only top-quality buckles and hardware for their wallets, belts, and bags, but it’s getting expensive. “I feel squeezed by the need to provide good value to customers and costs of high quality,” says Amann. “I really struggle to keep my things affordable I want as many people as possible to buy and enjoy.” Leather bound books and canvas and leather log carriers round out the couple’s product list.

They keep costs down by buying larger quantities of materials and making one or two dozen pieces at a time, rather than individually. “Every machine has to be adjusted and it could take 20 minutes per machine,” says Ken. “It’s a matter of anticipating what’s going to sell well and planning ahead.”

Back in the studio, which is a converted garage, the leather hides are sorted by color and weight. Lighter leather is used for wallets, the heavier weight for belts. “We bought the house because of the garage, which had a third bay above the ground floor,” says Ken. “I worked for so many years in a basement, it was a real thrill to have a pretty view, fresh air, sunlight, and ventilation.”

Heavier equipment, which includes a hydraulic Italian die-cutting machine that Ken calls his “power cookie cutter,” and a German splitting machine, is located downstairs. The rest of his equipment and supplies are upstairs in his workshop.

“I have a couple of high-precision German machines, a Japanese compound-feed sewing machine, and an American binding machine,” he says. Some of the equipment he uses by hand, such as the bench splitter and saddle stamp machine, hasn’t changed in hundreds of years. “I work in a medieval craft,” he says.

Before they moved to Vermont to run the business full time, they spent a lot of time at craft fairs. Since 2009, they’ve sold their products almost exclusively at farmers’ markets in Waitsfield, Burlington, and occasionally in Stowe. “It’s been a really good venue for us,” says Ken, who adds that it was Pat’s idea.

“We used to travel all over to craft fairs,” says Pat. “I started wondering why we were doing all that traveling when we lived in a tourist area. I thought, ‘Why not show locally?’ So we did and it’s worked well for us.”

“Ken and Pat have been vending with us for three years now and are great to work with,” says Christopher Wagner, manager of the Burlington farmers’ market. “They are very professional, have a beautiful product, and an amazing display. They are a favorite of locals and tourists alike.” Wagner also notes that not a lot of other vendors have a hold on the needs of regulars to the market and what a tourist to Burlington might want or need. “Its funny to see all the old belts in the trash can after they’ve bought a new Amann Leather belt.”

The Amanns also sell their products through the Vermont Life catalog, which sells artisan products. Once a year they do the Vermont Handcrafters Show at the Sheraton hotel in South Burlington. “It’s a very selective show,” says Pat proudly.

“We really like selling in person because of that connection between craftsmen and clients,” she says. “We’re social workers so we recognize that relationships play a huge part in the business.”

Every Labor Day weekend, the Amanns participate in the Mad River Valley Craft Fair, a fundraiser that benefits the Valley Players, a local theater group. “It’s held in Kenyon’s Field, just north of town, off Route 100 in Waitsfield.”

Laura Arneson has been the manager of the Mad River Valley Craft Fair for 18 years. “I’ve known Ken and Pat for a long time. They make a great team and are really good artisans,” she says. “They take the time to really get to know their customers. The focus of the craft fair is handmade items so it’s nice for people to meet the artisan in person.”

Although there’s not much down time, the Amanns enjoy hiking with Shelby, their goldendoodle, skiing, playing tennis, and riding their bicycles when the weather’s good. “Our busy season is May to October when we’re doing farmers’ markets,” says Pat. “The rest of the year is production and getting inventory ready.”

Ken is involved in fundraising for the Mad River Valley Rotary Club and is a cemetery commissioner. Much of their time is spent caring for Pat’s 89-year-old parents who live nearby. They also like to visit their daughters whenever possible.

Their daughter Jan is slowly becoming more involved in the business, but they haven’t given much thought to what’s down the road. Pat laughs and says she can’t imagine her husband ever retiring.

“I can’t imagine not doing leather work,” he says, nodding in agreement. “I’m not getting rich, but it satisfies my creative side.” •