Justine Nelson enjoys ranch work, tack creation
for Tri-State Livestock News
Some of the driving philosophies for JLN Custom Leatherwork Include:
Quality is more important than quantity.
Do it to the best of your ability or don’t do it at all.
Although you are working at home, you still need to keep to a strict schedule.
You need to be always thinking far enough ahead to efficiently manage your time.
It has been said that a Wyoming cowgirl is a force to be reckoned. She can ride, rope, sort, run a place-essentially by herself and still have a hot meal ready for a crew in less time than it would take a short-order chef. Add running a small business to that mix and you’ve got Wyoming’s own Justine Nelson.
“The desire to build and create has been a part of me from my early childhood.” Justine explained when asked the inspiration for her business. “My first efforts were directed towards outfitting toy horses. My sister has a bridle I braided, out of yarn, for her stick horse
when I was about 7 years old. Horse tack has always fascinated me, especially braided pieces. When I was about 8, I was given a set of simple 8 strand round braided reins. I tried and tried to understand how they were built. But unlike flat braids, which I could look at and recreate, the mechanics of a round braid escaped me. Finally, when I was in my teens I came across Bruce Grant’s ‘How to Make Cowboy Horse Gear’. I was delighted!” She went on to explain that, as teen on a budget, instead of using leather or cord she first employed bailing twine to braid. “After graduation and getting a job, I was able to work with paracord and eventually kangaroo. Learning to cut and bevel my own strings. Around this time I also started learning to tool leather and began building my skills in the construction and finishing of leather goods. I didn’t come from a family of craftsmen, so I learned mostly from books, articles and lots of trial and error.”
She went on to tell that in 2015 she attended a rawhide braiding workshop put on by Doug Groves in Elko, NV. “It was at that class that working with rawhide finally clicked for me.
Being able to feel a correctly tempered hide and to see how to correctly use the tools associated with cutting and beveling, made all the difference.”
During the past few years she has honed her skill and has been rising as a top tooler and creator in Wyoming. Nelson can be found in her shop building just about anything. “Horse tack, personal goods such as wallets and notebooks, decorative items like custom brand pillows. All kinds of stuff!” She described and went on to share her appreciation for working with rawhide, “I relish the challenges that working rawhide offers. Each hide is unique, and even though I might make a dozen bosals, each one will offer it’s own unique challenge.”
In regard to time Nelson explained that she has to be strategic with hers and prioritize. “The 6 months when I don’t have cattle here, I spend most of my time in the shop. But the rest of the year, the live cattle come ahead of the shop work. I do usually get at least 6 hours a day in the shop provided nothing is wrong with the waterline!”
Justine describes her key to success as “Producing a quality piece that is both functional and beautiful.” She said to other women aspiring to start a leather working business, “I believe it was Duff Severe who said ‘Saddlemaking (and rawhide) work is a medieval craft done with medieval tools for medieval wages’ I try to make it clear that this is no get rich quick deal. You’ll put a great deal of time and money into it before you get any back.” She also described some of the frustrations that come with a women in a traditionally man’s trade. “One challenge I still encounter is the belief that a woman isn’t capable of building good cowboy gear. When I have a booth at a rodeo, etc I often hear the compliment ‘Wow your husband is a really amazing craftsman.’ They mean it well, but it’s pretty frustrating to have your work immediately credited to a non-existent man!” She continues on with a skilled hand and a smile and said, “I am finding that my rawhide work is more easily accepted than my saddles. So for the time being, I intend to build my reputation as a quality gear maker with the rawhide. And perhaps, eventually focus more on the saddles on down the road.”
In terms of clients, Justine Nelson has them spread across a wide swath of the country. Anna Burch from Oshoto, WY stated in regard to Justine’s work, “Justine does beautiful work. Is precise and really makes an effort to perfect each piece. She is definitely gifted.”
To learn more about Justine Nelson and JLN Custom Leatherwork just visit facebook.com/JLNCustomLeatherwork.
Nelson works on a ranch between Gillette, Wyoming, and Broadus, Montana. For half the year she runs between 150 and 200 cow-calf pairs. “I spend far more time maintaining the water system and fences than I spend doing ‘cowboy’ stuff. But I enjoy it.” She stated. “Certain times of the year, branding, shipping, and hunting season I help out at the main ranch. Usually in the kitchen.”
Along with her ability to handle numerous ranch tasks well, Justine is gaining a lot of recognition for her leather working business JLN Custom Leatherwork.
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Outtagrass Cattle Co. cartoon by Jan Swan Wood for the Oct. 23, 2021, edition of Tri-State Livestock News