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Interview with Mercy Supply :: Leather & Local

Interview with Mercy Supply :: Leather & Local

by , September 18, 2014

Michigan-based Mercy Supply pride themselves on creating handcrafted products using top-notch and ethically produced materials. To find out more we recently caught up with founder Rusty Zylstra to get the lowdown on working with leather and sourcing materials as locally as possible…

Mercy Supply Courier Bag

What key insights drive your stuff?

I believe in building something that has a purpose. Not just another bag, not just another wallet. I try to find and use materials that can stand the test of time. It’s important to me that things last.

What are your signature traits?

I would say our raw copper snaps and buttons. The aging process is something I love, and I really enjoy what copper looks like years down the road.

Mercy Supply Snap Card Wallet

Who else is doing rad things in the world of carry and why do you think they’re important?

Emil Erwin is a company I have a lot of respect for. Their quality is above and beyond. I appreciate the processes and steps that they take.

Are there any things other brands do that you think are great or could be improved?

I really appreciate a good packaging design. Some companies go as far as stitched packaging, it just takes the whole experience to the next level. I think a package should represent what’s inside. Yes, of course the actual product in the end is what matters more than anything, but first impressions matter too. This is something that I’d like to get more intentional with as we move forward.

Mercy Supply

You pride yourself on getting the highest quality and ethically made materials available, how do you select them? What’s the criteria?

I try to find materials made as close by as possible. If I can’t find them close by, then we try to find them made in the USA. I am not opposed to other fabric and hardware made overseas, there are some great companies overseas. I make sure to look into what I’m purchasing and what I’m supporting before working with any company’s materials.

Mercy Supply

And how do these high standards affect supply?

We want what we want, which means sometimes we have to wait. It’s a sacrifice well worth waiting for. It takes a lot of time and research to find any new material, so sometimes it takes a while for our new products to be released.

I’m curious, what makes a material ‘ethical’?

“Ethical Leather” is an interesting combination of words. In this sense we need to think in a broader way than just an animal’s hide. Think later in the process. For example, a furniture factory that manufactures large pieces, like couches – they won’t be able to use a hide if there are any holes or inconsistencies. So where does that leather hide go? Probably in the trash. To us, this is a perfectly fine piece of leather. Quality in fact. These are some of the types of companies that we like dealing with. We pick up their scraps and we buy their “trash”. We also purchase leather from other regional distributors who have quality standards. We support many made-in-USA fabric and leather companies.

Chrome vs Vegetable? What’s your choice and why?

I use chrome-tanned and vegetable-tanned leather for different applications. I don’t necessarily prefer one over the other. I do really enjoy natural vegetable-tanned leather for the way it ages.

Mercy Supply

Do you still experiment with types of leather, or do you just have your favorites?

I have a few standard leathers I use very consistently, but we are always prototyping with new leathers from different tanneries to see what’s out there.

What are the biggest differences between experienced and novice leather workers? Where does the skill really show up?

It’s like anything, you can always tell the difference between a master of their trade and someone who is just beginning. But we were all a beginner at some point. As far as leatherworking goes it can be anything from inconsistent stitch tension, to the type of thread, to the types of rivets, etc. After spending so much time with my materials, it’s natural to notice what other leatherworkers are using. I notice when people are making the same mistakes that I have made too. We have to learn somehow, and it’s usually from mistakes. It’s whether or not you’re learning from your mistakes. If your work is overly expensive for your skill set and quality, something isn’t right.

Mercy Supply

Some leather heroes? Who has inspired you and continues to inspire?

I do not take the term “hero” lightly, but someone does come to mind – though we’ve had our ups and downs through the years. My father has owned his own forklift repair business for almost 30 years and is completely self-taught. He works hard, and always has. He works for himself and it turns out I’ve followed suit too. He’s not a leather hero, but he’s someone who I really look up to and has given me a great work ethic. He has shown me how to put in the time to do it right from the beginning.

What parts of leather preparation do you do yourself, versus getting the tannery to do, i.e. splitting, skiving, dressing, etc.?

I typically buy the leather straight from the tannery. I personally burnish it, edge dye it, skive it, split it, whatever it needs for its particular application.

Mercy Supply Roll Top

One great tip on working with leather?

Take your time.

You guys make and source everything locally? What are the benefits in doing so?

Right now we make everything in our shop, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. We are not able to source everything locally – it just doesn’t exist. We wish it did. Leather we source mostly locally and regionally. Other materials such as canvas and denim are made-in-USA products.

Mercy Supply Courier Bag

What’s next for you guys?

Well, we take it day by day. We try and grow slow to make sure we keep our heads above water and never get too deep too fast. We’ve been working on growing a new workwear line that we’re pretty excited about. But it all takes time.

What do you carry daily and how?

I don’t get outside of the shop too much during the week. But if I do this is most likely what you’ll find me with.

– Courier Messenger Bag  – Mercy

– Key Clip – Mercy

– Snap Card Wallet – Mercy

– Friction Folding Knife – Nate Runals, Blacksmith

– Bird’s Eye Maple Journal – Boarding School

Mercy Supply


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