What do guayaberas, banjos, engraved guns, and handbags have in common? They’re just a few of the items being lovingly and skillfully produced by hand in Texas today. And as the craftspeople featured here prove, you can embrace cutting-edge design while still remaining true to the spirit of the frontier.
Principal: Maura Ambrose | Location: Bastrop
Mention quilters, and people often imagine an old-fashioned, gray-haired sewing guild. But Maura Ambrose isn’t old-fashioned and she doesn’t have gray hair. What she does have is a background in organic farming (she worked at Johnson’s Backyard Garden after moving to Austin from Philadelphia in 2010) and a degree from the Savannah College of Art and Design, which together led her to take quilting in a sustainable and fine-art-driven direction. Each abstractly designed blanket is made of natural (and sometimes vintage) fabrics and takes her a month to dye, piece, and stitch. Ambrose adds to the laborious process by making most of her own dyes, foraging for raw materials—cochineal, onion skins, acorns, and pecan, walnut, and Osage wood—anywhere she can find them, including the ten-acre Bastrop property near the Colorado River where she and her husband recently moved. folkfibers.com
How did you start quilting?
It’s funny now, but it wasn’t funny at the time. My sophomore year I decided to major in furniture design. I was in woodshop making my first coffee table, and for some reason the table saw kept kicking back. You should really fear a table saw. So the third time it kicked back, a shop tech monitoring the class came over and hit the emergency stop button. Another student was working on an elaborate cabinet right behind the saw, and the cabinet broke in half and hit the shop tech in the head. He sternly told me to get out. Which I took literally, so I left the major.
Bottom line: you got into quilting because woodshop scared the crap out of you?
Yes, pretty much.
You eventually majored in fibers. Didn’t quilting seem too “grandma” to you?
My professors were always very conceptual. Denyse Schmidt, a leader in modern quilting, came and taught a workshop one evening, and she introduced us to improv quilting—blindly picking out fabrics from a scrap bag and making something. It was so liberating. It was a game-changer for me.
You piece your patterns by machine but quilt by hand. Why don’t you do the entire thing by machine?
A machine takes it in a direction I don’t like. What’s two days compared to two weeks? This is something that’s passed down—it’s an heirloom. Why wouldn’t you spend the extra time to do it right?
You lived in East Austin for a while. Why did you move to Bastrop?
Moving out here had so much to do with my farming background; we wanted space and privacy, and I want to provide workshops. We had to get outside the city to get what we wanted for our money. Everything around that river is so fertile. It’s the most personally valuable land in my eyes because I can use the land and the soil for my work.
Cobra Rock Boot Company
Principals: Colt Miller and Logan Caldbeck | Location: Marfa
Since opening their retail space and workshop in November 2011, Colt Miller and Logan Caldbeck have developed a cult following, from Los Angeles to New York, with their South Highland boot, a made-to-order lace-up that eager customers—men and women—now wait half a year to receive. The design and execution are a collaborative effort between Miller, a fifth-generation Texas rancher, and Caldbeck, a photographer, and almost every day you can find the couple in their Dean Street shop cutting patterns, shaping leather, and stitching the boots on a sewing machine dating from 1939. The style of the South Highland falls somewhere between classic and contemporary, with a silhouette akin to a heeled Cuban boot, a forties-inspired Western square toe, and oil-tanned leather suggestive of a worn-in favorite. Cobra Rock will debut a second shoe design at the end of the year. cobrarock.com
How did you meet?
Logan Caldbeck: We met in 2006 in Lubbock. I was down from Canada visiting family friends, and Colt had been making boots out of his garage. I’d never met anyone who made boots before, and I was amazed. Afterward, he’d make a pair of boots one month, sell them, and come stay with me in Montreal for a month. We always wanted to have a boot shop and live together.
Colt, how did you begin making boots?
Colt Miller: I’d just graduated from Texas Tech, and I was in a band, looking for a job, when I saw a pair of boots my grandfather had made for himself. I was blown away. [Boot maker] Jeff Blaylock, in Post, took me on as an apprentice for seven months.
How did you end up in Marfa?
LC: I had an internship at the Chinati Foundation, which led to a staff position. But one of the first trips we ever made together was to Marfa, and we had this wonderful, romantic trip.
What’s a day in the shop like?
LC: We’ve got NPR on. I’m usually at the cutting tables, and Colt may be sewing. It’s just the two of us running the business, so we’ve been working with a few boot makers in West Texas who help finish the boots.
Do you live close to the shop?
LC: We live up the street and ride our bikes to work. This is actually part of the old Borunda’s, which some people say was the first Tex-Mex place in the state.
Principals: Jamey and Constance Garza | Location: Marfa
If you’ve ever spent time at Marfa’s Thunderbird Hotel or Austin’s Hotel San José, you’ve probably sat on, slept on, or eaten off of creations from Garza Furniture. By using materials that are common on all ranches and farms—welded steel, leather, and wood—husband and wife Jamey and Constance Garza evoke a sense of rural Texas with every chair, bed, and table they produce, though angular bases in colors like neon orange, pale aqua, and deep red lend a modern feel and balance out the earthier elements. Each piece of made-to-order furniture is started and finished in their Marfa workshop, but to keep up with the high demand (they have a ten-to-twelve-week waiting list), a handful of workers in El Paso also help out with production. This fall they will debut a low-back dining chair and sling lounge chair made from canvas. garzamarfa.com
How many years have you two been in Marfa?
Jamey Garza: Ten years, I think. I came to work on the furnishing for Liz Lambert’s renovation of the Thunderbird Hotel. When we left Los Angeles, we had in our heads that we’d do this twelve-month project at the Thunderbird and then we’d go to Austin, where I’m from.
What’s the first thing you do in the morning?
JG: I panic. I try to start with correspondence stuff at the beginning of the week. Then usually by Wednesday I have more shop time. Because we’re still developing pieces, the Marfa workshop is very much always on.
What’s the studio like?
JG: This property was West Texas Utilities; they ran the trucks out of it and stored things here. It’s maybe 1,200 square feet and divided into a metal shop and a woodshop. It’s steel-frame, no insulation, a lot of lighting. It tends to always be humming with circulating fans. It’s about 98 degrees in the shop today. But it’s a pleasant 98.
Constance works on the furniture with you, but she makes other things too, right?
JG: She’s making tablecloths, place mats, napkins, and other tabletop items that go hand in hand with what we’re already doing.
What spurs your creative energy?
JG: I always wanted to make things. My grandfather had a radiator/welding repair shop in East Austin, so that was the beginning. My other grandparents were farmers in Jarrell, and my grandmother’s house had homemade things like egg-carton lamp shades and wreaths made from six-pack rings. The first thing I ever made was a seat for my drum kit. My brother and I worked construction jobs in the summer, and being part of that kind of environment was just natural.
Principal: Caroline Matthews | Location: San Antonio
Back in 1987, Alpine native Caroline Matthews heard from a friend who had been searching for a cotton guayabera and come up empty-handed. Apparently no one made the traditional garb (also known as Mexican wedding shirts) in natural, breathable fibers such as cotton, linen, wool, and silk—a necessity in the Texas heat. So Matthews, who’d just lost her job as an assistant manager at Sears, decided to put her degree in clothing and textiles from Texas Tech University to work and whip one up. The phone hasn’t stopped ringing since. Today, with help from a team of seamstresses, Matthews produces ready-to-wear shirts and shirtdresses for her two retail locations (in San Antonio and Houston), as well as custom creations for dedicated clients. doscarolinas.com
First of all, what constitutes a guayabera?
It’s basically a barn jacket. Every Spanish-speaking country has a version of it. There’s always some kind of vertical design down the front. Sometimes it’s embroidery, sometimes it’s just pleats. And the four front pockets are pretty much a Cuban thing.
What does the name mean?
It comes from the guayaba, or guava pickers who worked Latin American plantations.
How many different ways have you heard “guayabera” pronounced?
Oh my word! Some people call it the guacamole shirt. Others say “guayabera” with a flat inflection, with a hard g and b. But the proper way to pronounce it is with a soft Spanish g. It sounds like “why-ya-vehra.”
Weldon Lister Engraving
Principal: Weldon Lister | Location: Boerne
Weldon Lister was just a teenager when his father began teaching him the vanishing art of hammer-and-chisel hand engraving. Thirty-four years later, the retired San Antonio Fire Department lieutenant is now the man people like George W. Bush call when they want engravings and gold inlays for valuable possessions such as firearms, belt buckles, knives, and jewelry. When working with guns, which is what he’s best known for, Lister starts by giving the stripped-down piece a thin coating of oil, dusting it with talcum powder, and sketching his design directly on the body with a pencil. Then, tap by tap, he inscribes the steel surface with richly detailed scrolls and illustrations of running horses, buffalo, and wild game. Though he concedes that air tooling has made it easier for others to take up engraving, Lister remains committed to the method he learned, thereby keeping the family tradition alive. weldonlister.com
Did you always want to be an engraver?
My dad [who died in 2009] was an artist and a master engraver. When I was seventeen years old someone told me, “One of these days your dad’s not gonna be here, so you better learn how to do this.” So my dad said, “I’ll show you everything I know.”
Why don’t you use power tools?
The way I learned is very time-consuming and difficult. Unless you have someone to show you, it’s hard to learn it on your own, and in the fifties it almost died out in the United States. But it’s my comfort zone. I have complete confidence in my abilities.
Do you have a typical client?
I’ve done a lot of work for Texas Rangers, especially the old-school guys. They definitely use their guns. Then you get into really nice, expensive guns for wealthy business guys, and those are 99 percent never going to be fired. And I do barbecue guns.
Wait. What’s a barbecue gun?
It’s a gun you bring out to impress your compadres. It’s like a hot-rod gun.
What’s the most expensive gun job you’ve ever done?
The most expensive was $40,000, but I’ve got a $2,000 minimum. It gets you about 50 percent coverage of the gun, a very basic, routine type of engraving.
Where is your work space?
I built a studio next door to my home, about seven hundred square feet. I have north-facing windows for the best light, and I can look out and see deer on the property.
Are you passing the trade on to your kids?
My son Billy is a musician—he’s working on his first CD. In the fifties my dad, Big Bill Lister, was a Capitol recording artist and on the Grand Ole Opry. He opened for Hank Williams. So Billy’s following in his footsteps. My four-year-old grandson, Bentley, is interested in engraving, though.
Chuck Lee Banjo Company
Principal: Chuck Lee | Location: Ovilla
For the past eleven years, former master plumber Chuck Lee has been handcrafting some of the most sought-after open-back banjos in the country. Lee got his first banjo when a music store paid him for a plumbing job with one, and from that moment on he was hooked. Today he builds them in a humidity-controlled studio (actually a converted plumbing shop) in his backyard, working alongside his wife of 34 years, Tamara, and, at various times, each of their seven children. Lee’s banjos are made from maple, cherry, and walnut, which he buys from the local lumberyard, and they’re easily recognizable by the inlays on the necks and pegheads: crescent moons, dragons, and flowers, which he creates using mother-of-pearl, stone, and abalone. Of course, the instruments sound as good as they look. Lee tweaks each one for depth and warmth, producing that fundamentally American banjo sound. chuckleebanjos.com
How did you learn to make banjos?
I’ve never been trained in woodworking. I didn’t own any woodworking tools. I just taught myself and bought all the tools
and equipment. It was a huge learning curve, but I’m very focused. When I’m on to a new thing, I’m on it. I get absorbed.
Why does it take three to four months to get one of your banjos?
I pride myself on customer service and detail. Sometimes I’ll spend thirty minutes on the phone with a customer, or sometimes it’s forty emails and four hours on the phone. I tailor each banjo for each person. We’ve sold every banjo we’ve ever made, most of them before we’ve even finished them.
How does the rim affect the sound?
I’ve got ten models that come in two or three different sizes, and eight of these models have different tone rings. The bigger, the taller, and the thinner the rim is, the warmer the sound.
Has music always appealed to you?
Yes. When I started playing banjo and learning about the instrument, I discovered open-back banjos and old-time music. It’s really the music of the people and mostly played by folks sitting around in groups. All our kids play music. Our oldest is 32 and our youngest is 13, and they’re all artists in some way or another. They have their looks from their mother—thank goodness—and their creativity from me.
Are you really a Santa on the side?
I’m a professional, real-beard Santa. I also sew most of my Santa clothes. I do parties and corporate events and home visits—I show up and read stories and sing songs. I started doing it three years ago, with Lone Star Santas Charities. We go to West or Cleburne or Granbury and minister to children anywhere there’s been a disaster. We go in as second responders and bring gifts to children. We’re FEMA-approved.
Libby Lane Leather Goods
Principal: Libby Lane | Location: Bushland
The best design comes from knowing when to stop, and that’s a skill Libby Lane, a 2009 graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, has perfected. Her handbags, wallets, clutches, and totes are deceptively simple, made of the same water-repellent leather typically used for chaps, with brass feet and tiny stud closures as the only hardware. Working in a restored bunkhouse on the three-thousand-acre ranch where she grew up, Lane makes each bag by herself, taking five days to scissor the leather, paint the edges, sew it all together, and then put her name on the final piece. Her austere aesthetic is a throwback to a time when only two things mattered: Does it work? Will it last? Yes and yes. That straightforward, nostalgic approach, combined with artful stitching patterns, is what makes her work truly exciting. libbylane.com
I come from a lot of artists. My father is a geologist, but he’s a sculptor and painter as well, and two of my sisters also went to the Art Institute of Chicago.
What are your days like?
Yesterday I worked cattle, and then I came in and did my work. Usually when I get done sewing, I go outside and garden, and then I go back in and sew some more. But every day is different.
Is music playing when you design?
Yeah, stuff like Neil Young, Billie Holiday, and Fleetwood Mac. But I really like to listen to books on tape. I relisten to Lonesome Dove constantly, as well as Henry James and Jane Austen.
What’s your work space like?
My great-grandfather bought the ranch right after the Dust Bowl, and he built the bunkhouse for his workers in the forties. It’s been converted, with Saltillo tiles and concrete in the main room, but it still feels like an old space.
Who lives on the ranch now?
I live in the bunkhouse, and my parents live in the main house. I have five sisters, so this is like a family compound that everyone comes and goes from.
How much are your designs influenced by your surroundings?
A lot. It’s very peaceful out here. It’s been really nice to be home.