When Anita Jackel-Deggan was a child growing up in Hailer, Germany, she used to sneak into the local tannery to forage for leather scraps in their dump. She wasn’t supposed to be there, what with the toxic waste and all. But little Anita had a most specific goal: “I wanted to make change purses.”
One unlucky (or lucky) day, Anita was spotted by the tannery owner.
“What are you doing here? This isn’t safe for you.”
“I just want to make change purses.”
Intrigued and horrified, the owner made Anita promise that she would never again creep into the dump. She then surprised Anita with a beautiful piece of leather. “Make something nice out of it,” the owner said, “and bring it back to show me.”
Anita made a little folded wallet, impressing the tannery boss with her craftsmanship. Once she had eked out every product she could from the remaining leather, she had to make do with ho-hum fabric and ordinary sewing.
Now, so many years later, Anita is surrounded by her beloved leather. “I love the smell of leather, the feel of it, the texture. I’ve always liked it. It’s solid.” Her Indian Summer Leather Design studio is well up on a Gabriola Island hill, looking out over Spring Beach. “When I travel, I see so many people. I need this kind of place as my safe haven.”
Travelling for Anita is travelling across Canada – Vancouver, Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton, Red Deer – to sell her beautifully crafted line of soft leather bags. “The Origami line has been particularly popular over the years. They are reversible. You can fold them over and change the colours.”
Anita’s trek from the tannery dump to this island studio began with a fourteen month boat trip from Germany to Vancouver with her ex. “I read an article about a woman who circumnavigated the world in a sailboat. I wanted to do something like this.” She lived on the boat – first in Coal Harbour, then in Deep Cove – and started exploring craft shows. She knew she wanted to design, but how to get started?
Having studied fashion design at Hochschule für Gestaltung and apprenticed with leather designer Pia Petrini in Berlin, Anita assumed she would make her mark in clothing. However, the more she thought about it, the more she wanted to make leather bags, and change purses, of course. Anita got accepted as an artisan at Granville Island, a place where you can still spot her selling, despite having moved to Gabriola.
In making her wide variety of bags, Anita starts with a design sketch on paper. When that is finessed, she will cut a pattern, then try it out in canvas. “Once I know it works, I do it out of leather.” She sources her leather from Montreal and Toronto and cuts it using steel dies and a hydraulic press clicker machine. The sewing happens on a heavy duty Pfaff.
Along with her design elements, Anita embosses her bags with her logo: a pregnant killer whale. “It is inspired by the Northwest Coast First Nations and because I came here by boat.” The drilled stones she uses for her closures are collected from the beach. When she and her partner Brian head out to Sandwell for a walk, they will pick up two or three bags of stones.
Anita’s Siena line is rooted in the month she spent living in Florence, formally studying the making of heavy bags. “I bought leather from their tannery. They use heavy machinery; it’s a different process.” The insignia is based on the inlay of a black and white marbled floor she admired in the Siena cathedral. Anita’s Op-Art bags, on the other hand, are her take on the optical art movement.
With Brian taking on more and more of the business side, Anita can focus on the things she loves most: designing her bags and talking to the customers she meets in person and online. One of her great joys is running into people who just happen to be carrying her bags. “I was at a Sarah McLachlan concert and wondering if I might run into someone carrying one of my bags. These two women sat next to us and one of them was wearing my bag! I thought it was the law of attraction in some way.”
Looking forward, Anita is anticipating more travel, more inspiration and more design. “I don’t think I’ll ever retire. Once you do something that you love, it’s not work. I love what I’m doing.”
Written by Elizabeth Newton