Artist Profile: Patti Dowse

picnic bag

Among Erda’s offerings is this roomy picnic bag with outside pockets and removable insulated liner.

 

For Patti Dowse, founder of Erda Leather, happiness can be found in a piece of American deerskin or recycled fabric. And for the past 40 years, this exuberance has come through in every one of her funky, distinctive handbags.

Originally a science illustrator, Dowse bought her first piece of leather during a lunch break while working in New York City. Inspired to make herself a handbag, the self-taught artist was immediately hooked. “When another woman asked me to make one for her, I couldn’t wait to get started,” she remembers. She opened Erda Leather in 1971.

By the 1980s, Dowse was riding high, producing not only handbags but also a line of leather and suede clothing, working with top fashion designers including Cynthia Rowley, and even dressing Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler. Things calmed down as fashion evolved, but she never lost her joie de vivre. Leaving behind the mismatched designs and patterns that had been all the rage in the ‘80s, she created the “Pod,” a handbag with a rounded bottom and wide zip opening that curves around the top. Later came the Pixie, Pumpkin, Imp, Lily, Tinker, Gnome, Iris, Sprite, Curlicue, Fringie, Sidekick, New Moon, Hobo, Hideout, Maverick and Cowgirl Satchel—and Dowse has no plans to slow down.

Based in Cambridge, Maine since 1986, Dowse will be the first to tell you she doesn’t do all this alone. She currently employs 12 women to collaborate with her in producing the outside-the-box ideas she’s constantly coming up with. Each bag is handcrafted by one person, from start to finish, who signs the tag attached to the finished product. The result is a functional piece with an earthy design that’s perfect for everyday use.

Erda bags, named after the earth goddess in one of Dowse’s favorite Wagnerian operas, are constantly evolving and can be found in stores throughout the U.S., as well as internationally. With items that wholesale between $10 and $150, her goal is to offer high-end designs at reasonable price points. A 2014 NICHE Award finalist, Dowse, 67, says she doesn’t have time to think about retirement. She’s having far too much fun.

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