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Mia Sabel, Saddler

January 26, 2019
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.

At forty years old, Mia took  a year out 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

9 Responses leave one →
  1. Barbara Elsmore permalink
    January 26, 2019

    Congratulations to you Mia – it is wonderful to see you using your talent and skills to create something so worthwhile and lasting and which will be appreciated for years to come.

  2. Alex Knisely permalink
    January 26, 2019

    Clam. A word old to me, a sense new to me. Thank you.

  3. January 26, 2019

    It takes courage to do that. And Mia is right, expensive leather bags are often badly stiched. And. G.A, where do you find all this wonderful people? Thank you.

  4. Jill Wilson permalink
    January 26, 2019

    Great to see a really skilled person at work – and I bet her workshop smells lovely too!

  5. January 26, 2019

    Dear Gentle Author
    You are spot on and have hit the bulls eye with this article once again. This is such a worthwhile trade that people actually need. Leather is made to last and last and it can be repaired and restored to make it even look better when it ages. I once knew someone who had a stall in Camden market that did well from just selling restored old leather suitcases. Mia did well to get out of the City and discover and use the handcraft skills which she must of inherited from her grandfather . I wish her well !
    You are so right about the culture I recall whilst we were at school in the East End how most of the boys who left either ended up in the print trade or banking . It was looked down upon to go into a job where you had to use your hands . I suppose it was the big money and false prestige earned from city jobs that was the attraction. I followed that path myself and ended up in the city when I left school and also found it was not for me.

  6. Helen Breen permalink
    January 26, 2019

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, what an interesting story about Mia Sabel and her choice of career change to the ancient art of saddlery. I agree:

    “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.”

    This is so true, particularly today when so many “professional” occupations have been swallowed up by automation. I wish Mia the very best in her new career …

  7. Heather Rohrer permalink
    January 26, 2019

    My hat’s off to Mia for taking a path not often trod. Back in boarding school, I crafted a leather wallet for my Dad and used the double needle – one thread method…..brought back fond memories.
    Thanks G.A.

  8. Mark P permalink
    January 26, 2019

    You know your telling of the lives of good and contented people, like this one about Mia, help us realize just how rich and full our lives can be.
    Thank you, GA.

  9. Marcia Howard permalink
    January 26, 2019

    What a beautiful story. May Mia’s work continue to fulfil, and hopefully inspire others to step out of their comfort zones to develop their own skills.

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