We chat with ranch manager-turned-rawhider Leland Hensley about his art, process, and inspiration.
Native Texan Leland Hensley has worked in very Western roles. For a time he was a ranch manager. On the day we interviewed him, he was working with survey crews in the oil and gas industry.
But the most western and artistic of his efforts – and the hat he wears most willingly – is “rawer”.
Hensley became hooked on the practical art of rawhide braiding while attending Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas. After graduating, he took a job as a ranch manager and continued to hone his braiding skills whenever he had time. He found it a great way to unwind after a long, hard day at the ranch.
These days, Hensley spends most of her time braiding rawhide, exhibiting her pieces, teaching, and elevating the art. But he still works on other things on occasion. “These other jobs actually help me get out of the shop,” he says. “Sometimes you’re in the store so long that it gets a little old. It gets me out in the fresh air. I deal a lot with breeders. It helps me indirectly with my rawhide braiding.
Inducted into the prestigious Association of Traditional Cowboy Arts in 2001, Hensley was the first Texan to be elected. It has earned a reputation among collectors, working cowboys and fellow craftsmen for its excellence in design, beauty and functionality. Lately, he’s been focusing on making several pieces for the 2022 TCAA sale and exhibit. a bolo tie. »
We caught up with Hensley at his home and studio in Meridian, TX to talk rawhide braiding and the upcoming TCAA annual show.
Cowboys and Indians: Rawhide braiding is one of the four arts that the TCAA preserves, along with saddlery, bit and spur making, and silversmithing. Of the four, I think this is perhaps the least known.
Leland Hensley: I think it’s probably the least known. We’re a bit at the bottom of the totem, mostly because in other disciplines there’s some intrinsic value in the materials themselves, especially if they use silver. Some of my pieces have silver, but for the most part braiding was dorm craft. The guys braided stuff to use – things like reatas, headstalls, bosals, quirts, reins. Very few have taken it to another level. It was also very time-consuming, not that the other disciplines weren’t. I’ve always loved braiding and couldn’t afford it and thought I’d do my own. Many people think this but don’t realize what a job it is until they get into it. I started with this mindset, but I always wanted to do better.
THIS : What attracted you to braiding and makes it interesting?
Henley: What really appealed to me was that a real rawhide controls every aspect of the final product. I don’t need to rely on someone else to produce my piece. If there’s a problem, it’s my fault. Apart from making the animal itself, I take care of everything. I skin it well. I heal the skin on the right. There are braiders who do not produce their own skins and must rely on others for materials. For me, a real rawhide will also be in charge of this aspect. It’s one of the satisfying things, and a bit more of a learning curve because it’s a whole other process that has to be learned over time. The hard part and the inviting part is that it’s always different. Every skin is different. I can take two that are the same age, race, and color and they will work differently. There are two aspects: the braiding part and the preparation of the skins.
The preparation goes back to the butchering of the animal. I don’t want any flesh cuts in there. The cutting and preparation of the strings must be done in a way that suits me. By the time I think I’ve figured out braiding, there will be a curve ball. It appeals to me, because there is this degree of difficulty and not everyone wants to deal with it.
Above: “Mae’s bracelet”, unique rawhide design inspired by a silver and turquoise bracelet that belonged to Hensley’s wife’s grandmother.
THIS : What’s your favorite thing to do?
Henley: Probably quirts, mainly because there are different styles – across the country and in Mexico too – and you can get creative on them while still keeping them functional.
THIS : You said after a hard day at the ranch, braiding is a great way to relax. How does it help you relax?
Henley: Well, there are some things you do while braiding that you’ve done so many times that you don’t have to think about them. Between muscle memory and experiencing something you’ve done a lot, your mind can relax. Mine drifts, and I can think about other projects or the one I’m working on but at a later stage and not have to be so focused on the moment to be so careful that I can’t think of anything else. Many of my ideas for other projects come from that time. Even though I’m focused on what I’m doing, I always see something else in my head. For me it is relaxing.
THIS : Tell us about your workshop.
Henley: Several years ago, when I had my house built, my son was young, and it was just him and me. I had part of the house transformed into my shop. That way I could be there in the house. I worked a lot late at night. With a young child, I was busy during the day with him. We raise cows, horses and sheep, and we have to look after them. The best time to work was at night after he had gone to bed and things had calmed down.
At the moment, I am building a new store and a dormitory. The dormitory is on one side and the studio shop on the other. That way when I do workshops people can stay with me instead of me having to send them to town to stay at the hotel. It’s a little tough in a small town. Where I am in Meridian is about seven miles from a hotel. Sometimes I received people from outside the country. If I picked them up at the airport, they have no way to move. Having a dorm here mitigates all of that. We can give people accommodation and provide all meals. We can work as early as we want and as late as we want.
The new shop will be much nicer. Right now my shop is about 15 out of 30. The new one will be bigger – big enough for braiding. I worked for Big Bend upholstery for a long time, so I worked a lot with leather. In my current shop, I haven’t had enough room for saddle stuff. The new shop will be 25 out of 50, so I’ll have room to do something I haven’t had the chance to do in the recent past.
Above: Mini buckle bracelet collaboration with goldsmith Scott Hardy.
THIS : Do you need space. What about the tools and materials you need for rawhide braiding?
Henley: There is only one tool needed, maybe two: a sharp knife and a braiding awl. But as you go, you find things that will make things easier, and you can refine some things with other tools. When cutting strings, for years people have used a sharp knife and their thumb as a guide. Now it’s more precise. I have a cutter and a bevel. There are several that are made for the braiding industry, and I had one built that works for me. I also have a divider that allows me to divide to the thickness I need. It’s a whole other conversation: what kind and what thickness of skin is suitable for which project. I will not use cowhide for any of my bows or really fine jewelry. You have to pull the string so thin and tight that you lose strength, so a younger animal like a yearling or a calf would be used for these things.
THIS : Why is it important to you to preserve the art of rawhide braiding and what role does TCAA play?
Henley: When I started, there weren’t too many braiders; they were scattered and few in number. In my part of the world in Texas, it was more utilitarian and not really something someone would show you how to do. There weren’t many books to show you like there are now. Unlike the northwest, where the workmanship was more refined. Seeing finer work from up there was a draw.
TCAA has had a huge impact in the braiding world. As members, we are all teachers and proud of TCAA and what they have done. We pass on skills. Many of my workshops will consist of someone who has obtained a TCAA grant or fellowship of some kind. There are so many weavers out there now, and many are getting good at it because they’ve been exposed to workshops run by the TCAA and outside influences, like Argentina. I made my first trip there in 2002. I knew there was a great rawhide culture there and I wanted to learn techniques to improve – not copy – what I do here. We brought two Argentinian braiders here, we became friends and they eventually became TCAA guys. They liked what TCAA was doing and wanted to be part of it. We told them it was very labor intensive and the logistics would be difficult as they would have to travel to the United States twice a year. But they were determined, applied and elected. Over time, they learned the difference between South American and North American styles.
Now you can see YouTube videos of people everywhere braiding. I think it’s a big trade. It must be maintained, otherwise it will die. If we don’t raise expectations, you fall into mediocrity.
THIS : Speaking of preservation, will dogs chew braided rawhide?
Henley: Absolutely! You really have to watch them. My wife, when I first met her, ordered me a bracelet. She was carrying it and left it on the back of her couch and her little dog chewed it up. When she gave it back to me, I made her another one and put a tag on the chewed one that said “bad doggie”. I keep it around.
Handle, Texas style quirt.
Excerpt from our August/September 2022 issues
Discover the work of Leland Hensley at the annual TCAA sale on Saturday, October 1 (preview Friday, September 30; exhibit on view until January 2, 2023) at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. Visit him online at lelandhensley.com.