In 1926 George Hatton Vaught opened a harness and bridle shop in Rockwall. Though he had just $35 to his name, he grew the business, one meticulous stitch at a time, into a thriving Western saddle manufacturing and repair business. It soon evolved into an international mail-order company, G. H. Vaught & Son, which was run by his son, George Henry Vaught, until it closed in the nineties. Now it’s George Henry’s granddaughter, Vanessa Vaught, who is carrying on the family’s leather-working legacy. The 34-year-old has been crafting her own handmade bags and accessories since 2013, often using her great-grandfather’s tools while sitting in the same chair that he sat in at his sewing machine. “It is an understatement to say that leather is in the Vaught family’s blood,” she says. “I’m now part of the fourth generation that’s carrying on my great-grandfather’s knowledge and passion.”

Vaught operating a handpress used to install rivets, grommets, and snaps.
Vaught operating a handpress used to install rivets, grommets, and snaps.Photograph by Jeff Wilson

Vaught’s current workspace in Houston’s Northline neighborhood is fairly crammed with the vintage and modern-day implements that are part of her labor-intensive process. But she’ll soon have a little more room for her clicker press and her seventies-era hot-foil stamping machine and the industrial sewing machine she uses to make each rustic tote bag and pouch (some of which look like prickly pear pads). She’s getting ready to move to a twenty-acre spread in Niederwald, where she’ll live in an old farmhouse and make her pieces—she also makes items like tumbler sleeves and cord keepers—in a thousand-square-foot barn. “It’s a huge leap going from a city of six million to a town of less than six hundred, but I’m ready for the R & R and to focus on expanding my business,” she says. “My grandfather, who was a World War II veteran and an unwavering family man, showed me that hard work pays off and that people still appreciate what people make by hand. If he could see me now I’m sure he would say, ‘Good job, Vanessy.’ ”

Vaught in her Houston studio.
Vaught in her Houston studio.Photograph by Jeff Wilson

Q&A with Vanessa Vaught

When did you decide to carry on the family tradition and start your own leather business?

Hatton Henry is the result of the happy convergence of many passions and, honestly, good timing. When I was a student at the University of Houston, I supplemented my income by selling vintage boots and bags online. Houston has incredible thrift and resale shops, and I loved the vintage Coach bags I was finding. Their simplicity and clean lines allowed the leather to shine, and they reminded me of the purses my mom carried when I was growing up. That was when I rediscovered my love for leather.

Did you ever get to work alongside your grandfather on any projects?

As a child, I would visit my grandparents’ house, where my grandfather, then in his seventies, was still making saddles out of his garage. There was always a waiting list of at least a year for one of his saddles. I loved watching him work the leather and sew on his big, loud sewing machine. I remember being intimidated but fascinated that a machine gave my grandpa the power to make so many things, including a living!

What is the most labor-intensive part of finishing a bag?

Our newest straps are the most time-consuming because they require five machines and tools and eight steps per strap.

If you could design a bag for any celebrity, living or dead, who would it be for?

That’s easy. The late and great Queen of the West, Ms. Dale Evans.

A workstation with a few of Vaught’s leather-working tools.
A workstation with a few of Vaught’s leather-working tools.Photograph by Jeff Wilson

What is your favorite part of working with leather?

I love how leather reminds me of clay. If you have ever done basic slab building with clay, it’s a very similar exercise, especially when you’re working with oil-tanned leathers, which are my absolute favorite. And I love it when people walk up to my bags and grab them to take a huge whiff. They almost always say, “I love the smell of leather!” Or they will tell me a story of what the smell reminds them of. In a weird way, it brings people together.

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