East Van entrepreneurs bring leatherwork and shoe repair into modern era

Dec 29 2021, 5:49 pm

Made in Vancouver is a collaboration between Vancity and Daily Hive. Together, we’re turning the spotlight onto local businesses, organizations, and individuals who are helping to create a healthy local economy.

Western Canada’s only female-owned and Canada’s only queer-owned custom leatherwork and shoe repair shop is located right here in Vancouver.

Awl Together Leather is a full-service leather repair shop co-owned by Tess Gobeil and Ariss Grutter. After a successful Kickstarter campaign that coincided with the opening of the studio, Awl Together opened its doors at 101 – 1183 Odlum Drive near Commercial Drive in May 2021.

Vancity has been supporting people in our communities since 1946, like local entrepreneurs. As part of our Made in Vancouver series spotlighting local businesses, we talked to Tess Gobeil, co-owner of  Awl Together Leather, about how their shop is giving back to the community. Learn more about what Vancity is doing in your community at vancity.com 

“Awl Together Leather was born out of the high demand for a public leather studio that provides leather garment alterations, bag repairs, shoe services, custom leatherwork, and re-dye work,” said Gobeil to Daily Hive. “We came together during COVID-19 to visualize what a safe, long-term leather studio would look like. Together we realized that we valued supportive work environments with enhanced ventilation and a focus on environmental sustainability.

“We decided on the name Awl Together as it is a pun on our collective values as well as our favourite tool – an awl is a pointy tool used to poke holes in leather and soles.”

Gobeil and Grutter were inspired to open their shop after working at a number of Vancouver leather employers. They first met while working together at a local boot manufacturer. It was there where the pair formed a strong bond as underrepresented leatherworkers wanting to rid the industry of sexism and unstable work environments.

Awl Together Leather

Awl Together Leather co-owner Ariss Grutter (Erin Flegg Photography/Submitted)

“We were able to see what was working, what wasn’t, and where things could be improved,” explained Gobeil. “There aren’t many women or queer-owned shops in Canada, let alone the industry in general. We were definitely inspired by some of the shops who came before us, and who made it seem possible to do, such as Lo at Sole Survivor in Toronto and Julie at JD’s Shoe Repair in Oregon.”

In the first six months, Awl Together has served over 1,000 customers and completed over 3,100 individual repair and custom jobs. Gobeil and Grutter have also volunteered with The Learnary and the Vancouver Repair Collective as well as donated a large amount of scrap and offcuts.

Awl Together services include smaller upholstery jobs (“A chair, but not a couch”), and heavy textile repairs and alterations on denim, waxed canvas, and more. Gobeil and Grutter also handmake leather goods for purchase in their Odlum Drive studio, on their webstore, at live events, and at Seb’s Café and Corner Store. Italian-trained shoemaker Amy Slosky is also based out of the Awl Together studio.

The shop currently offers private 1-on-1 leatherwork mentorships and hopes to host in-person leatherwork classes in the summer of 2022.

We offer services that are otherwise very challenging to find in Vancouver or BC,” explained Gobeil. “Most shoe repairers won’t work on leather garments, and most leather garment tailors/repairers won’t work on shoes. Not for lack of interest, but the machinery required is very different.

“However, we are multi-disciplinary leatherworkers and offer all sorts of services in one studio. Each repair really informs future work, so it felt important for us not to limit ourselves based on how other shops operate.”

Awl Together Leather

Awl Together Leather co-owner Tess Gobeil (Erin Flegg Photography/Submitted)

Awl Together is also striving to bring leatherwork and shoe repair into the modern era with an increased focus on environmental sustainability as well as employing underrepresented and marginalized leatherworkers.

“First and foremost, our goals are to try and encourage sustainability and a less wasteful way of life,” said Gobeil. “Many millennials have never considered repairing or altering shoes or a leather garment, perhaps in part because there is so much misinformation about what is and isn’t possible with leather itself. We are happy to spend time educating customers and the public if it means another object is diverted from the landfill. 

“Our other goal is to repair our industry from the inside out. Currently, 82 per cent of cobblers in BC are over the age of 45 and 82 per cent are also male. In the next 20 years, we expect a lot of those shop owners are likely to be retiring and either closing their doors or selling their business.

“We are committed to seeing our industry shift into a more sustainable future with greater representation of repairers. We aim to train and launch a new wave of leatherworkers that reflect the diversity in our city.”

Awl Together Leather

Awl Together Leather co-owners Tess Gobeil and Ariss Grutter (Erin Flegg Photography/Submitted)

Gobeil also wants to empower other makers, artists and leatherworkers in starting their own business by sharing their own experiences.

When we eventually opened Awl Together Leather, it was only possible because of the years of foundational work in place. It definitely did not happen overnight,” Gobeil said. “We’ve been very lucky, all things considered. It has been difficult and tiring at times to work in a customer-facing business during the pandemic.”

“We would recommend that everyone start small, to test out what the appetite is for the niche you are trying to fill. In our case, we realized that the demand was strong as leatherwork – and leather tailoring in particular – is vastly underserved.”

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