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MADE LOCALLY | Crafted with character: Local maker melds art, engineering in his quest for perfect bag

As a boy, Dustin Spencer was fascinated by taking apart and reconstructing found objects. He painstakingly examined the old metal hay rakes and tractor equipment on his dad’s farm near Malaga. He spent hours prying apart windup pocket watches he’d accumulated from garage sales, collecting the small gems — sometimes precious — that served as pivot points in the tiny machines.

During summers spent with his mom at his grandfather’s Arabian horse ranch in Grand Junction, Colorado, it was custom-made leather saddles, bridles, riding boots and other gear that garnered his intrigue.

“I would look at the individual components. It looked like an exploded diagram to me,” he says of the myriad horse tack he would sift through when he was “supposed to be cleaning stalls or whatnot.”

When he got a little bit older, his attention turned to old canvas military bags, which he would rip apart and sometimes repurpose. “Part of it was I just wanted to be destructive, but I was really interested in the construction of things,” Spencer recalls.

He landed his first sewing machine while in Colorado, at about age 8, after his grandfather and step-grandmother agreed he could earn it by hauling items to and from a sale they held.

Today, that vintage, green Husqvarna is on display in Spencer’s open-walled, 750-square-foot studio at American Shoe Shop, between First and Second streets on North Wenatchee Avenue. It’s one of dozens he’s used during the past 13 years to fashion custom canvas and leather bags, leather wallets, belts, and other items for his store, Vermilyea Pelle.

“We do all the cutting and sewing in-house,” Spencer says of the meticulous process he uses to create each item by hand.

“It takes between seven to nine sewing machines, two rivet setters, two different strap cutters, a 10-ton hydraulic clicker press, a hammer/hand rivet set, a band knife splitter from the 1940s, and a hand full of strap bevelers to make one bag.”

Around the time he graduated high school, Spencer built an off-grid cabin on the ridgeline between Stiss and Pitcher Canyons. That was the time period he began making bags and purses for his then-girlfriend (now his wife). The couple married in 2006, and Spencer sold his property in 2008 to get needed funding for Vermilyea Pelle.

Before starting his own business, when he and his wife were expecting their first child, Spencer had worked at the same location for close to a dozen years, fixing shoes.

American Shoe Shop owner Josh Tarr says he got to know Spencer as a child who would accompany his dad into the store.

Tarr, who had worked as the store’s cobbler in his late teens before purchasing it at the young age of 22, saw talent in the boy, and offered him a job as soon as he was old enough to be hired.

“It’s really a mentorship apprenticeship situation,” Tarr explains of the cobbler trade.

“I taught Dustin what I could teach Dustin, although he has this innate ability once he’s seen something happen once to understand the mechanism behind it.”

“He’s always mastering something new,” Tarr adds. “After a while, he was teaching me stuff.”

Now 39, and with three curious kids of his own underfoot, Spencer starts work at 4 a.m. a few days each week to be able to “get into my creative mindset.”

“When I’m making a new bag, there’s a lot of engineering that goes into it. The first one is totally bespoke and cut — no pattern or anything,” he explains.

As a result, it is “always kind of messed up, and then you start distilling it down and figuring out which panels are going to interlock with each other,” he continues. “I’m basically trying to dummy-proof my stuff.”

“Then, at that point, I have a pattern.”

He sends this to a Texas firm to fabricate custom steel dies (think super large, cookie-cutter molds) that allow him to cut out 12 to 24 patterns at a time, in shop.

“I have a couple different tanneries I work with,” Spencer says of the leathers he uses, which are primarily from cow hide, but also bison, horse, and occasionally pig and deer.

“Shell cordovan leather from Horween tannery (a leather manufacturer based in Chicago) is my favorite,” Spencer says. “It's incredibly tricky to design goods around because the hides are quite small; it's very difficult to sew, and it requires extra care when turning bags out — 90% of our goods are built inside out, (with) superimposed construction — to ensure we don't tear the leather,” he continues.

“The end product can literally last a lifetime, though.”

That lifetime warranty and the appeal of owning something handmade and unique seems to appeal to a certain type of customer, who Spencer says is “sartorially inclined” and seeking “quality over quantity.”

“My primary draw to leather, canvas, brass, copper is the ‘better than new’ factor,” Spencer adds of the satisfaction he experiences working with the materials that so fascinated him during his youth. “These mediums all gain character with age just as we do.”

With three part-time employees, Spencer’s business makes 75% of its sales through its website, Another 20% of sales are of the wholesale variety to high-end retailers — two in Western Washington and one each in Texas and Virginia.

Only about 5% of sales are made in-store, but Spencer says having a downtown location is worth it.

“I wanted to build goods right in plain sight to help the end user of our goods close the gap between the product and where it was made,” he says of his shop.

“We gain some sort of extra credibility for them being here,” Tarr says of his former employee and longtime friend. “Customers see all that going on.”

“I hope he doesn’t outgrow us,” he adds. “But he probably will, and we’ll be happy for him.”

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