In the midst of excavating the floor of his former school (now workshop) in Carmarthenshire, Wales, Mike Watt found a coin dating back to 1863. “Apparently when they were building back then, they'd occasionally put a coin in the foundations as a good luck token,” he explains. Over 160 years later, the building is home to Rural Kind, the company that Mike runs with his wife Nia.
“We knew the school was going to close, so we kept our eye on it and hoped it would come up for sale,” says Mike. “Nia has close ties, having grown up in the area, and we’d always wanted a project.” Light pours in through the large arched windows of the former dining room, now Mike’s workshop. The space houses large tables supporting weighty rolls of waxed canvas from Scotland and old, trusted sewing machines, while spools of thread rhythmically punctuate the peg boards on the wall.
The company began after Mike had seen some practical vintage bags that weren’t widely available at the time; he decided to make a similar one for himself, having learnt how to use his mother’s sewing machine when he was younger. Mike’s background isn’t in product design but in architecture, and he occasionally works on some small projects. “Architecture has faded away for me in the past couple of years and Rural Kind has become my full-time occupation.”
His love of functional design and Welsh vernacular buildings feeds into his pieces. “There is never any ornamentation,” he says. “I love things that are functional, but also beautiful. I want things to work well, and look purposeful.” The first piece he designed was a rugged tote bag, made from waxed canvas which is now integral to all Rural Kind pieces. “It was very similar to the things I make now,” Mike says. “With the leather handles and copper rivets. I really researched what materials I would use, and the bag came from that.”
The pieces respond to the natural landscape surrounding the workshop, being hardwearing and robust against the Welsh weather. Mike sources most of his materials from the UK – the signature waxed cotton canvas is from a company in Dundee, Scotland which traces back to 1864, while leather is from a Devon tannery that uses only local hides, and is hand-finished with natural oils and waxes. “It’s the only tannery in the UK that uses oak bark and has been a family business since 1862. We’ve worked with our canvas and leather suppliers from the start and I can’t see that changing,” he says. “We have great relationships with them and need to have the traceability.”
Mikes process is manual - he cuts the canvas by hand, and stitches using some “old-fashioned, clunky” sewing machines that “have been going for years.” For the fixtures and fittings, he uses an array of hammers and punches to work with the leather. From the large shoulder of hide, he cuts straps and burnishes the edges with a wooden edge burnisher attached to an old bench grinder. “That creates friction to seal the edges, making it long-lasting.” With the leftover pieces of leather, he creates washers to go on the back of the rivets, or reinforces joints, to minimise waste.
Alongside steadily continuing renovations on the old school at the weekends, Mike plans to gradually introduce new products to the Rural Kind range. “Working slowly is really important to me. I think if you start to do things too quickly, you lose a connection with what you’re making.”
Interview by Alice Simkins.
Photographs by Heather Birnie.
Watch Mike create a Waxed Canvas Belt Pouch in his workshop on our Instagram.