While most university students wait tables or work retail to pay for school, Vancouverite Ariss Grutter took a more traditional approach to their part-time job: they started shining shoes. By the time they finished undergrad, Grutter had fallen in love with leatherwork. “I really enjoy how durable and environmentally sustainable leather is,” they explain. “Every single thing I make will last for two lifetimes.”
Awl Together Leather's OK tray
The enduring nature of the material also made it perfect for Grutter’s first custom work. “I’m queer and trans, and I started making custom harnesses for my friends,” they say. “I want to make sure that trans people and queer people have access to apparel that fits them, that accentuates their gender, and that makes them feel great.”
But the male-dominated industry of leatherwork wasn’t exactly a welcoming community. While working in cobbler shops and doing alterations, Grutter struggled to find their place. “I’ve found it really hard to be trained in this industry, and for people to take me seriously,” says Grutter. “People just assume that a man should be doing this job.”
Tess Gobeil and Ariss Grutter are crafting classic goods while challenging industry norms. Photo by Adele Thomas.
So, last April, Grutter and fellow queer leatherworker Tess Gobeil launched a Kickstarter and raised over $22,000 to launch Awl Together Leather—the only female and queer-owned leatherwork and shoe repair shop in Western Canada. The East Van shop specializes in custom work (from vests to chaps to a seven-foot leather rhino) but offers ready-made accessories, too: think wallets, coasters and decorative trays.
Awl Together Leather's dopp kit
According to WorkBC, 82 percent of leatherworkers in the province are male, but more than half are approaching retirement. “The industry is changing,” says Gobeil, “and we want to lead the change in Vancouver.”