Deerskin creations popular for Maine fashion designer, even after 40 years

The employees of Erda in 2010. Erda, a small business based in Cambridge, Maine, produces handmade artisanal handbags made of deerskin, upholstery textiles, cowhide and recycles animal skins.
Courtesy of Patti Dowse
The employees of Erda in 2010. Erda, a small business based in Cambridge, Maine, produces handmade artisanal handbags made of deerskin, upholstery textiles, cowhide and recycles animal skins.
Posted Jan. 26, 2012, at 5:11 p.m.

Patti Dowse planned to name her business “Erde,” meaning “Earth” in German. But when she realized that Americans would pronounce “erde” to rhyme with “turd,” she changed her mind.

Her beautiful handmade leather bags and clothing, all original designs, didn’t deserve that kind of label. So she found a compromise.

While attending New York City operas in late ’60s, Dowse often enjoyed Richard Wagner’s character Brunnhilde, a boisterous Norse Valkyrie donning a horned helm. Brunnhilde’s mother was named Erda.

That sounded better.

“Erda is kind of an Earth mother, in charge of productivity and the seasons,” said Dowse, 66, at Erda’s home base, a former cowboy boot factory in Cambridge, Maine, where she has been operating the business since 1986.

Last year, Erda celebrated its 40th birthday.

The earthy title befits her merchandise line, which has evolved over the years to a varied line of artisanal handbags made of deerskin, cowhide and a variety of other animal skins, including toad, turkey feet, snake and alligator used to make the elaborate fashion bag called “Big Al.”

“I don’t use any skin that the animal is raised and killed for,” Dowse said. Her soft, supple deerskin comes from all over the country. Supplied to tanneries from butchers, these skins would otherwise usually be discarded.

Dowse fell in love with leather at a young age while shopping the streets of Gloversville, New York, with her mother. The town was once filled with leather merchants, tanneries and animal-skin jobbers, but today, upscale stores have replaced most of the leather shops.

Though much of her merchandise is deerskin, she has created a line of fabric handbags for anti-leather customers. For the colorful, patterned textiles, she travels to North Carolina each year to attend a fabric show for the furniture industry.

In the past four decades, the business has been through major changes.

Erda reached its peak in the early ’80s, when Dowse’s western designs became especially fashionable largely due to “Urban Cowboy,” a popular 1980 American film. At that time, she had 20 employees producing not only handbags, but also a line of leather and suede clothing. Dowse worked with top fashion designers, including Cynthia Rowley. In the Erda “museum,” the front entryway of her Cambridge shop, hangs an aging poster of rocker Steven Tyler wearing an Erda tan suede T-shirt.

For Dowse, moving to rural Maine in the ’80s was a compromise. Initially, her husband wanted to move to Alaska.

The business took a dive in the 1990s due to an unexpected change in fashion trends, and Dowse had to get rid of all of her employees.

“In 1992, it was just me pretty much ready to give up,” she said.

It looked like the end of Erda.

But in 1996, she decided to try simple designs. Deserting the uneven fringes, tassels and haphazard stitching of ’80s fashion, she created the “Pod,” a handbag with a rounded bottom and wide zip opening that curves around the top. Sales took off. The company has been growing ever since.

Erda bags — the Pod, Pixie, Pumpkin, Imp, Lily, Tinker, Gnome, Iris, Sprite, Curlicue, Fringie, Sidekick, New Moon, Hobo, Hideout, Maverick and Cowgirl Satchel, among others — are sold at 1,200 stores throughout the U.S., including the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Despite her frequent travels to trade shows in big cities, Dowse plans to stay in Maine.

Over the years, she has fallen in love Cambridge, a tiny town where the social hub is the general store. Just a few miles away from her shop, she and her husband live on a 40-acre farm with their ponies. It is where their two grown daughters expect to return for the holidays.

Erda employees are Dowse’s neighbors, women from Dexter, Cambridge and Hartland, many of whom are former employees of Dexter Shoe Company.

The name “Erda,” whether she realizes it, describes Patti Dowse as a person. She naturally assumes the role of mother — guiding and caring for those she has employed over the past 41 years.

Today, the 12 women who make up the Erda crew work in one big room, each with her own sewing table and machine — which Dowse won’t touch without asking. Each employee crafts a handbag from beginning to end, then signs the tag.

“I found out long ago that the most valuable part in our products is our labor, so we use the best material. If you’re going to take the time to bake a fancy cake, you’re not going to buy cheap ingredients,” said Dowse, who only knows of a couple other handbag companies using deerskin.

When Dowse gets an itch to design something new, she retreats to her desk in the corner, surrounded by shelves stacked with bolts of fabric, to experiment away from prying eyes.

“I’m self-taught. I don’t really know what I’m doing,” said Dowse, who holds a bachelor’s degree in art and biology from Brown University.

Yet, one her handbags was recently announced as a finalist in the 2012 Niche Awards, a prestigious competition for which judges reviewed more than 1,100 entries by professional craft artists from the U.S. and Canada.

“For inspiration, I walk around the trade shows, and then I try to do exactly the opposite of what everyone else is doing,” she said.

Erda designs are typically functional, comfortable and sophisticated with symmetrical lines, organic shapes and earthy embellishments. Her best-selling Bracelet Bag is pyramid-shaped with a zipper down one side and a beaded wristlet at the top. When set down, the bag stands on its own.

“A lot of handbags are designed by men who never use them,” Dowse said. “We test drive every one of them.”

Nearing retirement, Dowse wonders about what will become of Erda.

“You put all this time into something, and you want it to keep going,” she said.

In Wagner’s opera, the character Erda has the ability to see the future. Dowse has no such gift, but she’ll be working hard to see to the graceful end or continuance of her legacy — her deerskin designs, the revived factory in Cambridge and the crew she has come to love.

For more information on where to purchase Erda creations, visit erdaleather.com.

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