Emma Thieme is the maven behind Cherryfield’s Maven Leather
Emma Thieme, the owner-operator of Maven Leather in Cherryfield, deliberately looks for imperfections in leather. When she chooses leather to make a handbag, she sees a scar as a sign of the life of an animal and a scratch as part of the process; signs of a transformation well worth incorporating into her designs. “The imperfections tell a story and that story shouldn’t be discarded or hidden away,” Thieme says.
Her customers tend to feel about leather as she does, that these stories are meant to be passed on. “Yes, they want something stylish,” she says. “But they also need it to be rugged and functional and they’re happy to embrace how leather changes and transforms over time.”
Thieme (pronounced Thee-me) is a fourth-generation Mainer from Waldo County. She splits her time between making bags for part of the year, traveling to craft fairs and in the winter months, making custom motorcycle seats. The motorcycle seats were her entrée into the leather working business. Thieme rides motorcycles herself—a 2009 BMW twin engine for multi-day trips, but these days she’s mostly riding a 1975 Honda, smaller and good for riding close to home—and couldn’t find a seat she liked.
Building her own seat wasn’t an enormous stretch. She’s been telling stories with fabric and stitches since she was 5 and received her first sewing machine from her mom. “It’s easier to say that I don’t remember not knowing how to sew,” says Thieme, 30, who lugged a sewing machine to the University of Maine at Orono, where she studied journalism. An unexpected gift of a garbage bag full of leather scraps from a friend introduced her to working with leather, fashioning leather earrings for friends.
After school she wrote for a travel website and did some editing, but never found journalism fulfilling. Her professional life clicked in 2015 when she studied professional auto trimming—the art of constructing upholstery for cars, boats and motorcycles—at Mobile Technical Training in Hackensack, New Jersey.
She began using the upholstery remnants to make bags, ranging from backpacks to handbags to clutches. While working in leather is physically exhausting, she said, she likes the sculptural aspects of creating seats and designing bags. Every motorcycle seat job is highly customized, as the cyclists send her their ”plate” as well as their opinions and ideas. She adds the foam, fits and stitches each plate per their agreement. Now clients seek her out for a unique design they can’t find elsewhere.
“Some people have been working on restoring or building a motorcycle for years or even decades and the seat is usually one of the last steps before the bike is complete,” Thieme says. “Last year I made a seat for a man who had been waiting 40 years to finish an antique Harley Davidson. He was just working on it piece by piece and hadn’t been able to find a seat made in the style he was looking for.”
The majority of the leather she uses is tanned in Maine. She dyes some of it herself (in the red leather bag in the accompanying photos, that deep red comes from beetles) and has taken classes in dye processes. Thieme favors bison for the strength of its hide. She’s also working with some local hunters Down East to incorporate Maine buckskins into her designs.
Thieme has been collecting sewing machines since she was a teenager, but works on an early 1960s-era Durkopp Adler that she found on Craigslist. It’s the oldest machine she owns, but the most dependable. “Sometimes I’m curious about what it would be like to sew on a more modern machine, but this one has so much heart I don’t think I’ll ever be able to switch,” Thieme says.
What’s her personal style, bag wise? She typically carries the same one for years. Right now that’s a poppy-red Luna backpack from her collection. She wears it as a cross-body bag, giving her freedom to use her hands or ride her bike.
Her bag designs are rooted in her own history.
“I grew up sewing with my mom and so many of those old sewing patterns we had from Vogue and McCalls are permanently burned into my brain. I’ll never forget the shapes of the clothing and purses and those silhouettes,” Thieme says. “Every design that I create probably has some root in the time spent flipping through pattern books with my mom.”
While most of her motorcycle seat customers find her online, her bags can be bought both online and in some Maine retail stores, as well as fine craft shows.
Until recently, she worked in a studio on her 12-acre property. She credits the freedom and solitude of life Down East in shaping her designs.
“I wanted to live independently and in a way that keeps me on the fringes,” Thieme says. “It wasn’t unusual to go a few days or a week without seeing or talking to anyone. That time in solitude, just devoted to my leather work, allowed me to develop a style that’s truly my own. My own edge.”
But then last year, she noticed a space in Cherryfield for rent. She hadn’t planned on having a studio outside her home, but this one fell into place. After months spent cleaning the place up, she realized it could serve as both studio space and storefront. She painted it a clean white and added simple furnishings found at the local dump and collected from friends. The result is a space that fits her aesthetic, highlights her creations, and gives her room to spread out while cutting, punching holes and sewing. And to keep developing that edge.
Jessica Hall has been a business reporter in New York, Philadelphia and Portland. She’s from South Jersey but now lives in Nobleboro with her husband and their two kids.