Ian Cochrane, founder of Balsam Mountain Leather Company, fell into leatherwork almost by accident. “It’s not something I’ve done all my life…” he says. “I’ve always enjoyed using my hands and building things, taking things apart and putting them back together again,” he elaborates, “so I think that inherent desire probably attracted me to working with leather, but as for getting into leatherwork itself, it was kind of happenstance.”
Cochrane was nearing the end of his last year at NC State when he came across a leather wallet he loved but couldn’t afford. “It was really beautiful and really expensive,” he says, “and I was like, ‘There’s no way I’ll ever pay $400 for a wallet, I won’t be able to put anything in it afterward.’”
So while he was home in Asheville, North Carolina for Christmas break, he wandered into a store that sold leather. There, he bought a few materials—some leather scraps and a stitching awl—and decided to make a wallet of his own. “[I] just kind of experimented and taught myself using a how-to tutorial,” he says. “By the third one, I already started having requests from friends who wanted me to make them wallets.”
In late 2012, Cochrane applied for a tax ID and officially launched Balsam Mountain Leather Company.
Now that Cochrane has developed a few solid products, he has begun to focus more on conscious manufacturing—sourcing materials from sustainable businesses and creating products that will last a lifetime.
Balsam Mountain Leather’s products are made with American leathers that have been treated with environmentally-friendly vegetable tannins. And all the leathers Cochrane uses are by-products of the food industry, which means his business doesn’t directly contribute to the number of cows that are slaughtered on a daily basis. “In a world where we waste a lot,” he says, “I feel better knowing that I can use this part of the animal that would otherwise would have gone to waste.”
Cochrane also has a lot of reverence for the materials with which he works. “When you’re cutting into nylon,” he explains, “if you make a wrong cut… you’re going to be out some dollars. But leather is an animal’s hide. Be respectful when you cut into it and when you punch holes. Make sure you’re doing everything right. Measure twice, measure three times, cut once. It’s just more respectful to the animal that died to give its meat and hide for use by us.”
Balsam Mountain Leather Company is still a small operation; Cochrane does all of the production himself. And as for the other parts of running the business? He trades his goods for services. “My girlfriend, Nettie… actually built my website for me in exchange for bags,” he says. “People who shoot photos for me, I’ll exchange leather goods to them.”
Cochrane recently quit his day-time job to pursue Balsam Mountain Leather Company full-time. He expects the company will continue to grow, making its way into more local retailers and creating space for local partnerships. In the meantime, he takes advantage of the therapeutic practice of stitching each wallet by hand and, as he puts it, “somehow getting paid for doing what I enjoy doing.”