Thomas the Turtle, made by Lucy Cushley from recycled leather, creates a conversation about materials and what happens at the end of their lifetime.

Traditional skills put a new spin on the plastics problem.

A saddler has recycled two saddles, some harness and wire fencing to create an artwork that emphasises environmental issues. 

Lucy Cushley took up the challenge of making something good from old leather to win the President’s Choice class at the 2023 Society of Master Saddlers (SMS) National Competition. 

Lucy Cushley (left) receives the President’s Choice award at the 2023 SMS National Saddlery Competition from past-president Helen Reader. 

Her Thomas the Turtle has a plastic straw piercing its leather head, highlighting the impact discarded plastics have on oceans.

Lucy is a saddler and harness-maker who owns The Irish Saddler in County Down, Northern Ireland. As well as bridles and harnesses, she makes and sells leathergoods such as handbags and belts. 

Her winning turtle was inspired by a family joke: “If you don’t keep up with the recycling, you’re killing turtles.”

But behind the running gag lies a serious issue, says Lucy.

“I hate seeing videos on social media of sea life suffering due to plastics. I wanted to make something that highlighted this issue, but also maintaining the original features of the saddle.”

Lucy’s turtle took two weeks to make. With no pattern to follow, she researched the various species.   

“Maybe I should have made a leatherback turtle,” she says, “but they have a smooth shell whereas the green sea turtle’s patterned shell made for a more interesting design.”

Lucy adds that she relished the challenge of making a statement in repurposed leather.  

“I’ve enjoyed embracing the theme of using leather that’s reusable, recyclable, repairable and biodegradable - and plastic that’s not.”