When Cheryl Schulke is working, few things can distract her—not even slicing open her finger, which she has done twice. “The first time, I rushed to the ER, but the second time, I just taped it back together and kept going.” The reason for that dedication is Stash Co., Schulke’s line of handcrafted leather bags and other goods, which she produces out of a century-old former mattress factory in Sealy, near the German community of Cat Spring, where she was raised. “When you are in the middle of nowhere, you have plenty of time to daydream,” she says. “I was constantly challenged to be an innovator as a child.” During her teenage years, she worked in her father’s lumberyard and her grandparents’ decorating and upholstery shop, which was housed in the mattress factory until the early nineties (her uncle still owns the building). And Schulke, who now lives in Houston, jokes that since then she has had “nine lives,” making a living as a teacher, a writer, a photographer, and a software developer before finding her calling as a bag designer seven years ago. “I spend my time shaping leather,” she says, “but I actually feel that the leather is shaping me.”
Q&A with Cheryl Schulke
How did your first bag come about?
I was given a piece of cowhide in exchange for some photographs I took. I didn’t know what to do with it. Then, six months later, I was prepping to go shoot an antiques show in Warrenton, and I needed a camera bag, so I took that piece of cowhide and made one. I sold it off my shoulder the first day of the show.
What materials are you currently working with?
I’ve been collecting textiles for twenty years—buntings, mill sacks, military duffels, European mail bags—but I’ve only recently felt confident enough to use them for bags. It’s risky because there is only one of each item. Whatever you do with it, it better be good. But leather will always be my favorite.
Each piece of leather has its own personality. You can order hundreds of hides and no two will be the same.
How long have you been in the mattress factory?
Three years. I was working out of my house, but I needed more space, and my aunt and uncle offered to let me move into the factory. It’s a historic landmark, so I never would have guessed that would be an option. But my dad and I went in there and cleaned it up and brought it back to its original state.
Do you make all the bags on your own?
I used to. At one point I was making five hundred bags a year by myself. I’d drive out to Sealy five or six days a week, work ten to twelve hours, then drive back to Houston to be a mom. That’s how I was raised: in the family businesses, no one was above any job—you swept the floors yourself and counted the bolts. Now I have a really great, small crew, but there are still products that only I do, like the Antler clutch.
What has been your biggest challenge as a designer?
People can go to Target and buy almost any bag they want, so the challenge is how to help our customers understand the value of what they are getting. Every bag that leaves our studio has an amazing story—there is a cool piece of history built in to something with a practical use.
Where does your inspiration come from?
When I started, I was looking at what people were doing and trying to figure out what my vision was, but now I don’t want to know what anyone else is doing. I like to stay pure with my vision. We absolutely don’t follow any fashion trends or seasons, and I don’t think we ever will.
For more information, go to stash-co.com.