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Mia Sabel, Saddler

March 30, 2015
by the gentle author

“My grandfather George Dobson was a Master Carpenter & Cabinet Maker, he taught me how to turn bannisters and make joints when I was a child,” Mia Sabel, the Saddler admitted to me, “and my mother taught me how to sew with a sewing machine too – so I was always quite proficient at making things.”

Just a short ride from Liverpool St Station delivered me to Walthamstow and a short walk from the station took me to the modest terrace where Mia works. Through a side gate, I entered the large garden where a log cabin with a wood-burning stove, surrounded by raised vegetable beds, provided the ideal location for an urban saddlery. Here in this enclave of peace Mia sat in the winter sunlight, illuminated like a woman painted by Vermeer, yet cutting and stitching leather with the skill of a Master Saddler.

It was an extraordinary discovery in the modern world, although equally a phenomenon of our times – since Mia used to work in the corporate financial sector and take the trip down to Liverpool St Station, until she set out to redirect her life towards independence by acquiring manual skills. Mia’s example fascinates me as the inverse of the familiar pattern in the East End where, through successive generations, traditional skills have been lost as the notion of a white collar desk job won precedence over working with your hands.

The irony is that Mia is able to complement her ability as a saddler with years of experience in the business world, granting her the acumen to make a living at this ancient trade.

Yet when you see Mia at work, the wonder is her scrupulous attention to technique. Even a humble line of stitching requires the precise choice of punch to make the correct-sized holes for the thread, the selection of the thread itself, the waxing of the thread and then the patience to work simultaneously with two needles and get the stitches perfectly even, and to ease the leather apart so it does not tear – all while holding the leatherwork in an ancient wooden clamp, known as a ‘clam.’ It is a beautiful thing to see such a fundamental task perfectly achieved.

Seven years ago, Mia took  a year out at forty years old and worked in a stable while considering her options. “I looked at millinery, tailoring and saddlery,” she confessed to me,” but I don’t like hats and, as a tailor, I realised I’d end up sewing in a basement, but there was a full-time course in saddlery ten miles from here in Enfield.”

“It was very physical and hard, it was for sixteen year olds. Quite a lot of the girls came from a horsey background whereas I am in a suburb with not a lot of horses around me,” Mia explained, looking up from her work with a grin of recognition, “I understood I couldn’t make a living making saddles, even though I know how to do that, so I’ve learnt to make bespoke luxury leather goods.” The custom watch strap has emerged as Mia’s unique speciality, permitting her the opportunity to make a strap that fits the wearer so precisely it only requires one hole for fastening.

Living in Walthamstow, not so far from William Morris’ house, Mia Sabel has grappled with many of the same issues about the role of the craftsman in the modern world, and developed a personal synthesis of romantic and realistic thinking – pursuing her unlikely course with hard work and flair. “I’m a jack-of-all-trades, I’ve even done shoe repairs,” she revealed to me with characteristic modesty,“Repairs teach you how things are made and I discovered how badly-made expensive bags can be, so I’ve learnt how to iron out those flaws in my own work.”

Mia uses two needles simultaneously on one thread to achieve her scrupulously regular stitches

Mia works with the saddlers’ clams on the right, dating from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries

Punching holes for the stitches

Mia’s proud workmanship

Using a wooden clam to grip the leather in place, Mia stitches the strap

Mia Sabel is available for all kinds of leatherwork commissions and restoration work.

You may also like to read about

Rachael South, Chair Caner

Barnaby Carder, Spoon Carver

3 Responses leave one →
  1. Greg Tingey permalink
    March 30, 2015

    Very close to me, then.
    I live between the Vestry House museum & the Water House (William Morris Museum) …
    There are a large number of “Arts & Crafts” (including musicians) moving in to this area, which has enlivened the local scene a lot.
    I would love to know just which road she is in – she can’t be more tha a km from me, probably less …. ( not the actual address, as she obviously wants some privacy & quiet to work ) .

  2. March 30, 2015

    Lovely to see pictures of the workshop, I am always glad to see that handwork is not dead. I only knew Walthamstow from our school uniform supplier, Henry Taylor, who had a shop on the high street for many years. Valerie

  3. March 30, 2015

    A pleasure and honour to be featured on Spitalfields Life. Thank you, Gentle Author.

    Greg, I agree that Walthamstow seems to attract a wide range of artists, craftsmen and designers, promoted by the recent “God’s Own Junkyard” signage seen from Blackhorse Road tube station, and evidenced by creative festivals such as the E17 Art Trail and creative groups like E17 Designers and Craft Guerilla. Long may it continue.

    My home workshop is in the tranquility of Walthamstow Village – my email is on my website if you’d like to book a visit:

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