Nestled in her workshop in the New Forest, Lottie Chamberlain is one of just a handful of apprentices in the UK who are learning the disciplined craft of saddle making
Saddles are sensual, shapely, sturdy things. They need to sit well along the horse's spine, be comfortable across the back, hold firm for the rider, be pleasing to the eye and last for years. They require, as New Forest saddler Lottie Chamberlain knows, a disciplined craft that is all about seeing the complete picture.
‘When a saddle I've made fits well and the horse is moving and looks happy - and the rider is happy - that is a lovely moment,' says Lottie, 27, who is now setting her sights on becoming a master saddle-maker; an ambition that will take another four years on top of her apprenticeship. ‘I simply want to make beautiful, well-designed stylish saddles, using good materials. We want to provide the rider with a proper bespoke fit, like a visit to the tailor's.'
Lottie is in business with, and working under, master saddler Jason McCabe, and their airy, orderly workshop that sits on the edge of Hampshire fields is neatly stacked with batches of leather (from robust shiny hides to gorgeously supple ‘schrumpf'), sample saddles, bales of flocking (padding for the saddle panels) and the crucial ‘trees'.
‘The tree is the internal structure of the saddle,' Lottie explains. ‘It's made from laminated wood and has metalwork to strengthen it and springs to give it a flex. Ours come from Lariot Treemakers who are very established and based in Walsall, the original hub of the saddlemaking trade.'
Lottie has an energised pride about the heritage of her craft and in finding an apprenticeship with Jason - ‘there are only around seven places in the UK every year, so I feel very lucky.' It's now three years since she picked up her first piece of saddlery leather, after first studying art and linguistics and then changing tack completely to manage a stable-yard. Her passion for horses, though, began when she was little, and she's recently bought a pretty mare called Sophie, with a calm demeanour and flouncy Veronica Lake mane.
‘Saddlery combines my interest in all things equine and it also allows me to be creative but in a controlled way,' she says. ‘There is an abundance of different types of leathers, techniques and decorations, so I get to put my own design and stamp on things. But it is very disciplined and you have perimeters to work within, which I like: not having boundaries scares me.
‘I was lucky with my upbringing because I felt I could be whatever I wanted to be. But for a while, every day I wanted to do something different. Now I have found what I want.'
Standing at her bench, tapping stitchmarks into leather straps with a handsome well-used wooden mallet, Lottie has an attitude of complete concentration.
‘There are stitchmarkers and prick-markers with different number of teeth that give you different number of stitches for the bridle straps or saddle,' she says. ‘It looks complicated, but it is a system and once you know the process you are fine.'
Read the rest of this feature on p.110 of the July/August 2012 issue...
By Kerry Fowler