Meet the rugby-playing saddler with a passion for making gypsy harness.
Louise Palmer has been named ETN/SMS Bench Saddler of the Month for May.
The award, presented in conjunction with the Society of Master Saddlers (SMS), recognises those who uphold the highest standards of leather craft skills.
Louise was nominated by Chris Taylor, Master Saddler and proprietor of Saddlers Den, who says: “Having worked with Louise since September 2007, I’ve come to look upon her as a friend rather than an employee.
“Originally from a harness-making background, she quickly adapted to the variety of work we undertake - period reconstruction work, restoration, working for film companies, bespoke fashion items and everyday equestrian items.
“Louise spends all her time at the bench, tackling every job with enthusiasm, lavishing care and attention on each task. She’s always ready to help out at a moment’s notice and happy to advise the apprentices and students attending training courses in the workshop.
“Over the years, Louise has built up a rapport with our customers from the travelling community. Many of them prefer to speak to her directly about their requirements for alterations, repairs or manufacture of driving harness items.”
About Louise Palmer
Louise grew up in a small town in North Devon where she enjoyed riding her strawberry roan mare Charity and visiting the local saddlery, WT John’s & Son.
“It was a glorious, double-fronted shop and to me, a magical place,” recalls Louise. “The shop front was full of wares, with a workshop in the back. It was my love of this place that made my decision, aged 14, to become a saddler. “
After leaving school in 1986, Louise started an apprenticeship with saddler and harness-maker John McDonald while training at the Rural Development Commission in Salisbury.
Having completed her training, Louise pursued her passion for harness, in particular traveller/gypsy harness.
“Horses and harness are very important to this community and their knowledge is second to none,” she says. “We [at Saddlers Den] have a good relationship within the community and word-of-mouth means that we are never short of this type of work.
“My all-time favourite piece of harness to make is the breeching,” adds Louise who was “extremely proud” to win first place in the Open Harness Class at the SMS National Competition in 2017 with a set of breeching.
“I thoroughly enjoy my work and every day is different. I never get up in the morning with the dread of going to work. It’s like having a hobby,” she says.
“The only down-side nowadays are the occasional customers who believe we can make items cheaper because we 'have leather lying around'.”
Over the years working with Chris at Saddlers Den, Louise says there’s been “a crazy range of commissions and requests”, most memorably working with Kevin McCloud and Channel Four.
“We made a raft out of inflated sheepskins lashed to a wooden frame. We travelled down to Somerset and filmed an episode for his series Man Made Home. It was a very rewarding, entertaining day with a great crew.
“Our work is extremely varied, from handrails for airports, mirror surrounds for hotels, to supplying the local pet shop with collars and leads.
“As bench saddlers, our strengths lie in our ability to use our skills to suit our customers’ needs, however diverse and challenging they may be. At Saddlers Den, we relish the challenge.”
When not at work, Louise likes to keep fit and spends time at the gym. “I also train and play competitive rugby with Southport Ladies,” she adds. “I can confirm it is possible to stitch with broken fingers!”
How to nominate a bench saddler
Everyone is invited to nominate bench saddlers they feel deserve to be named ETN/SMS Bench Saddler of the Month. Candidates for the award must be members of the SMS and based in the UK or overseas.
To nominate a bench saddler (or more than one), email firstname.lastname@example.org and tell us why this person deserves to be put in the spotlight. Please include the bench saddler’s name and business name.