Her brand of leather bags is called Cambria Handmade, but it takes a trip to Cambria Harkey’s studio near the Colorado River for the name to sink in. Harkey doesn’t use a sewing machine of any kind. Every stitch and zipper on her luxuriously soft hobo bags, satchels, and weekenders for men and women is done by hand.
This handmade approach reflects who Harkey is. The generous, spirited New Mexico native, who has lived in Austin since 2000, can’t think of girlhood summers on her family ranch without reminiscing about the feel and scent of the saddles and saddle bags she would work with all day long. Though she’s self-taught, her mother instilled in her the pleasure of working by hand—doing it any other way just feels wrong. “It’s always been in my blood,” Harkey recalls. “My mother is a really hard worker; she was raised on a ranch, so that’s how I learned. I never learned to use a sewing machine.”
Harkey’s work ethic has served her artistic instincts well. As the longtime director of photography for C3 Presents, she has crawled over stages to shoot performers from Pearl Jam to Arcade Fire at every ACL Festival since its inception. She also has shot C3’s other festivals, such as Lollapalooza in Chicago and Brazil. It’s a physically demanding art form—just like hammering and handsewing bison, deerskin, and elk hides for hours to transform them into bags, something she has done since college. “Leather is one of those things that ages with you and kind of melts into your body. If you wear it every day, it takes the form of your shoulder,” she says.
Much like the supple material Harkey uses to craft her wares, Cambria Handmade has shaped itself into a unique part of the Austin style scene since its formation several years ago. Her core line of bags is sold online and at stores such as By George (524 N. Lamar Blvd., No. 103, 512-472-5951; 1400 S. Congress Ave., 512-441-8600) and Stag (1423 S. Congress Ave., 512-373-7824). But her custom work has evolved into a huge part of her business, which she operates out of a studio in East Austin owned by hotelier Liz Lambert.
“It’s not an easy business. People think it’s very charming to be a true artisan or craftsman, but they don’t realize how physically challenging it is. It’s so hard on your hands, your back, your body,” Harkey says. Despite the physical demands of both of her crafts, Harkey will once again lead the photo team at ACL Fest this fall while continuing to oversee Cambria Handmade. (Her right-hand man, Jesse Baerenrodt-Hayspell, works on the core line when she’s out of the studio.) She says, “It’s super rewarding to make something with your hands, see it come to life, then give it to a person and see them use it all the time. It takes it to the next level for me.”