Embracing Delicate Strength with Local Leather Designer, Megan Combs

Megan Combs, designer and founder of Stitch & Shutter, began her journey by learning to marry her varying backgrounds all while keeping her mantra of “a delicate strength.” Combs is skilled in fiber art and photography, which simultaneously led her to expertly practice leatherworking. Combs embraces the beauty in minimalism and practicality with her intricate designs and handmade craftsmanship. She recently opened up her home studio to 303 Magazine and walked us through her design process as well as her business goals for 2020.

303 Magazine: What is the concept behind Stitch & Shutter?

Megan Combs: Stitch & Shutter started as a way for me to get back to designing and working with my hands after spending four years constantly creating while pursuing my BFA before moving and finding a full-time job that wasn’t in a creative role. The collection grew and became something I hadn’t expected and the goal with every piece is to combine traditional craftsmanship with modern yet timeless designs. I draw on my fine art and fashion background to really inform each piece in the collection.

303: What do you want to tell other women who want to start their own business?

MC: Trust in the timing. Don’t limit yourself by thinking you should have done something sooner or that you should be further along. It’s great to have goals, but creating a rigid life plan is really limiting. You’re ready when you’re ready, and the first few attempts aren’t going to be pretty so don’t hold yourself back by trying to wait until something is “perfect.” Just get it out there and keep improving.

There are so many intimidating steps to starting a business and you’ll need to figure out an overwhelming amount of things as you go, but you will figure it out as you go along and what better way to learn than hands-on? That said, be practical and have a plan when you start out. Special situations aside, there’s no need to dive into something full-time before testing the concept and putting in the work and knowing there’s something there.

303: All of your products are handmade. What is your favorite part about working with your hands?

MC: I have a need to keep my hands busy at all times so I’ve always just been finding ways to do that. I love that I’m creating these pieces that people wear, use and keep in their homes with just a few simple tools and my own two hands. It’s just something that is so tangible and didn’t happen while sitting at a computer. The process of working with my hands has been meditative and therapeutic throughout my life.

303: What goes into your designing process?

MC: Every piece in the Stitch & Shutter collection started out as a simple concept that kept rolling around in my head until I needed to get it down on paper. So, the process goes from nagging concept to a simple hand-drawn sketch to a detailed drawing breaking down each component of the item (measurements, exact number of pockets, cuts, snaps, rivets, etc.) And finally to sourcing materials and developing a sample by hand. I hand-cut, hand dye, hand stitch, and hand burnish items with beeswax from my dad’s bees. Once I create a sample, I’ll wear or use the piece myself plus get feedback from customers and often make a few improvements before the final design is available for purchase.

303: Why did you choose leather to work with?

MC: In some ways, I suppose it chose me. I have always had the need to work with my hands and I’ve enjoyed dabbling with various media but when I started working with leather, it felt like “home.”

A friend asked me to create a custom baldric for him back in 2014 and I picked up some
vegetable-tanned leather, some rivets and a few handheld tools and figured it out. After that, I just kept going with leatherwork partly because I already had a few tools and extra materials and partly because it was something I really enjoyed working with. I love the way leather can be manipulated and molded, how timeless and durable it is and I love any process where you are really forced to slow down and take your time and use simple tools. Leatherwork offers that in many ways.

303: Can you explain what “a delicate strength” means to you and your company.

MC: “A delicate strength” was my art mantra when I was getting my BFA in fiber art and photography. I first used the phrase while writing a statement for a mixed media wall hanging featuring three badass women casually strolling down a city street while everything around them was total chaos. The piece was called “Atomic” and it included a lot of delicate hand stitching and fiber techniques. The women at the center of it all were layered collage figures that began as demure models from fashion ads but eventually morphed into these three figures who were either simply unphased by or responsible for what was happening in the world around them.

The phrase stuck with me through my art career and became a badge of honor and pride while I was at first misjudged and underestimated because I was small and often quiet. When I started working with leather, if someone asked what I did, my response would frequently be met with, “Oh, I wouldn’t have expected that.” So, in many ways, the mantra is a celebration of the marriage of “small but mighty” or “hard and soft” in people, namely women, and quite literally in materials or techniques like cutting intricate fine lines and webs out of a strong, durable material like leather. I love the idea of how much power you can choose to draw from being underestimated. So much lies under the surface.

303: What is the one thing you need while decorating your home?

MC: A strong sense of self and plenty of texture. There are so many different styles and images out there to be inspired by, but it’s important to always come back to what makes your home yours. I am a minimalist in every aspect of my work and life, so I like to keep things clean and simple and uncluttered. I love a mix of organic materials along with metals and more than anything, layers of texture.

303: What are your goals for this New Year?

MC: I have some new tools and equipment coming to the studio and I would like to spend some time getting to know them so that I can streamline my process even more and just be a little more efficient with my time overall in the New Year. There are also a lot of designs that have been living on paper for quite some time that I plan to bring into the collection for 2020. [Last year] was a really major year for my business in a lot of ways and 2020 is really going to be all about keeping that momentum going.

All photography by Madison McMullen.