One hour west of Houston, in a grassy field in Sealy, sits a white clapboard mattress factory with evenly spaced rectangular windows and a peaked roof. Stepping inside and ascending the splintery wooden stairs into the breezy second-story workspace where Cheryl Schulke, 41, spends most of her days is like stepping into another place in time.
Among the original turn-of-century mattress-making machinery, Schulke, trim, lightly sunburned and bespectacled, produces soft leather handbags, clutches and carryalls by hand. She’s branded her line—literally, with an iron—as Stash. On average, she can finish about two bags a day, which was fine when she started the business in August 2008. But now, she says, she’s working long hours to meet the increasing demand.
“I posted pictures of one of my most popular bags, Le Grand Sac, on Facebook, and within the day, all those bags I’d posted had sold,” she says of the oversized, buttery-leather messenger-shoulder bag hybrid with a contrasting flap closure that goes for $429. “I made more, took them to Urban Market, those sold out.” The thrice-yearly Urban Market Houston Antique Show, next scheduled for Oct. 27-28, is a sprawling outdoor expo at the Bayou City Event Center.
“And I have more than half a dozen standing orders now,” she adds. “I’m just waiting for the leather to come in.”
Schulke talks with her hands a lot, and reaches out to touch the things she’s describing; her blond hair is tucked into a loose top knot as she stands over a table where 20 cowhides, folded lengthwise, are neatly overlapped according to color, from billowy white to slick black. “I consider myself a collector,” she says, laying a hand across the hides.
Arranged along the pistachio-painted walls are nautical flags, Japanese mailbags, French mill sacks, vintage fur coats and heavy rolls of fabric that will—eventually—make their way into Schulke’s creations as lining, or to form the front of a market bag with leather sides. Or, in some cases, she studies the design of another found item, like a dusty old apple-picking sack, for inspiration for new designs. “It’s about finding the beauty in something that other people might cast off,” she says, lifting a WWII-era military hammock. “It’s hard to cut something like that, because there’s only one, so you better make it into something pretty good.
“These materials have to ‘tell me’ what they want to be,” she says. And this makes perfect sense, because, in a way, the materials are what told Schulke what she wanted to be.
The accessories designer was finding her way as a freelance photographer in 2007 when an antiques purveyor presented her with an opportunity, in an unusual form of compensation. “A dealer asked me to come shoot her shop, so I did,” recalls Schulke. “She couldn’t pay me, so she traded me a cowhide.”
The hide languished on the back of a chair for almost a year, until Schulke needed a new bag for her camera and supplies to take to an antiques show in Warrenton. “I’m not a brand girl,” she explains. “I just want something that nobody else has.”
Schulke fashioned a messenger bag from the hide, sewed an old belt to it as a cross-body strap, and wore it to the show—where a stranger said she just had to have the unique piece and, in less than an hour, bought it from her. A light bulb went off. Schulke bought another hide, made a couple of more bags for her friends, then started selling them online with accelerating success.
But as her handbag business grew, so did the space needed to house it. “We had no space to store anything; we had no space to store finished products,” says Schulke’s husband Paul Forde, who works in highway construction and co-owns Stash, about the Cypress home the couple shares with their young daughter. Schulke had outgrown her workspace in their spare bedroom when yet another beautiful opportunity landed in her lap.
Schulke took off for Sealy, where her grandparents had purchased an old mattress factory in the ’50s; they quit producing mattresses there in the ’70s, and it was going unused. Schulke’s uncle, who looks after the property for the family, agreed to let her set up shop on the second floor of the well-maintained historical building, and so she did.
The building itself—the Haynes Mattress Factory—was built by Daniel Haynes and his son R. H. Haynes in 1909, and still houses the machinery used to form and stuff mattresses from that era. Schulke still uses the cutting tables, a few sewing machines and any other tools she could find around the factory. It has echoes of the industrial revolution throughout—even the windows are more than 100 years old, the panes holding the kind of glass that gives the outside world a curious wavy haze.
The factory also become a de facto arts center in the small Texas town; Schulke says she gets calls from artists every week who want to use the space as a studio. A few lucky ones have had the chance.
“Working in the space produces, for lack of another word, energy. It opens up the possibility to do things you wouldn’t think of previously,” says Maurice Connolly, a sculptor from San Jose, Calif., who made a series of sculpted metal orbs in the factory.
Schulke’s also hosted a couple of concerts in the building. Alt-country musician Will Johnson, lead singer of the band Centro-Matic, did a “living room tour” from Austin to Minnesota and stopped at Schulke’s factory along the way. Folksinger Sarah Jaffe and alt-country crooner Ryan Holweger have also played the space, which seems to lend itself well to live performances.
“It’s a glimpse into an America that once was—a sacred fortress cherished by its owners, built with great care, and rich with soul,” says Johnson. “It’s one of my favorite places to play music.”
And it’s Schulke’s favorite place to make her bags, which will turn up at the next Urban Market. They are also available online at stash-co.com—or, for those who want to consult with the designer herself, by appointment at that old clapboard mattress factory, where, surrounded by grassy Sealy fields, the designer has fashioned an artful mission statement to match her beautiful handmade product.
“It doesn’t matter if I’m never Kate Spade,” she says, dismissing the idea with a flap of her thin, strong hands. “I just want to make good bags, and I just want people who carry them to be happy with them. And I’m good with that.”