Jessica Ullom is the founder and brains behind Hawks and Doves (named after her favorite Neil Young album), a fabric and leather goods company based out of North Carolina. It first began when Jessica (or Jess) started crafting goods inspired by items found at flea markets. As a collector (or “borderline hoarder”, as she describes herself), she found herself drawn to vintage textiles—feed sacks, old blankets, army canvasses—and was searching for a way to repurpose them.
Her grandmother, Inez, taught her to sew when Jess was young and Jess was drawn to use the sewing machine again. One day, she made a pillow out of an old feed sack and her friends loved it. She made more and put them up for sale at a flea market—and they sold out within five minutes. She realized she may have something profitable in her hands.
As she continued to make pillows, Jess began to experiment with making tote bags, as well. She expanded to making with leather and gradually learned the craft of manipulating a whole new material. Like Alabama Chanin goods, Hawks and Doves items are truly built for a lifetime. They are intended to go and travel with you in your daily life because they are made with care and with knowledge. According to Jessica, “Our leather goods are made with oil tanned leather. This means that the hide is already treated with oil and wax. This tanning method keeps the leather conditioned for a long time, you will only need to treat it every once in a while. Choose a good leather conditioner or oil and test it in a small inconspicuous spot on your bag before fully treating it. Oil tanned leather will age with you, and just look better after every wear!”
While head Executive Pastry Chef of Ashley Christensen’s restaurant, Jess’ husband Andrew requested she begin making knife rolls so that chefs could safely tote their valuable tools from place-to-place. Other chefs began requesting their own and, with their help, she created a leather knife carrier that sells out time and again.
Earlier this year, Jess and Andrew opened Union Special Bread, a pop-up bake sale in Raleigh, North Carolina, which focuses on handmade bread leavened with natural cultures, alongside a line of croissants and other pastries made using fresh and local ingredients.
Name: Jessica Ullom
Creative Medium: Leather and Textiles
Alabama Chanin: What makes you curious?
Jess Ullom: I am a naturally curious person, always wondering how things are made, how things work, how others think. Two years ago I had my son, Gus. Now, as I watch him discover and encounter the world, I find myself soaking up that infectious, joyous curiosity. It is a wonderful gift to be able to live out the small things again and look at things with big and wide eyes.
AC: What do you daydream about?
JU: A “quiet life.” As a little girl, I never had dreams of grandeur and the one thing I can remember thinking about quite often was wanting to live in a house on rolling hills, with my baby, and my hair in braids – growing my own food, drying my own herbs. As a kid, my mom would take me to an herb shop called “The Sunshine Store,” and if this dream could have a scent, the smell contained in that little space would be it. Now, as I sit here on my computer, simultaneously checking my phone, and listening to music on a Bluetooth speaker I find myself still yearning for that disconnected quiet life.
AC: How important is education to your creative process?
JU: I received my BFA in Photography from CCAD in 2008. As a leather and textile worker, I am obviously not fully utilizing my photography degree, yet without that education I know I would not have been able to develop Hawks and Doves into what it currently is. Art school allowed me to take chances, push my own boundaries and, in many cases, it forced me far outside my comfort zone. I’m not sure if that speaks more to experience or education, or is it education from experience? I think education can come in many forms and it does not necessarily have to live within brick walls and hand you a piece of paper as you exit.
AC: What parts of your work seem the “heaviest” and the “lightest”?
JU: Since I am a one-woman business, the production and actual ‘running’ of the business are the heaviest. There are a lot of skillets in the fire at all times and it is easy for those tasks to build up and take over everything. Design days almost feel like ‘free days’ right now, and I so look forward to them!
AC: Does the creative process differ when you are creating for commerce vs creating for the sake of creativity?
JU: Absolutely. Since my products are made to be worn, used, and sold, I am always thinking about how they will function in another person’s life. This awareness of having another person wear and utilize your product inherently influences the creative process. This is also my business, my income, and how I support our family, so I want to design and create things with the intention of selling them. Sometimes I create things for myself, or to fill my own need, and then find out that is also a need of others. THAT is a great feeling and really feeds the inspiration tank.
AC: What makes you nervous?
JU: (Everything, ha!) The ups and downs of running your own business are enough to make even the most Zen individual a complete wreck. Deadlines, social media posts, emails, production, emails, stock sourcing, emails, replying to messages, and did I mention emails?! The day is never done and the list is never complete, THIS makes me nervous – the ‘how am I ever going to finish it all?’ Add on top of that my phone dinging seven times a day with what could very possibly be an earth-shattering news update – these days there are also many things OUTSIDE of the business that make me nervous.
AC: Is there something that can halt your creativity? Distractions, fears, etc.? Have you found a way to avoid those pitfalls?
JU: The minutia of running every aspect of a business yourself can really get in the way of creativity. A few years ago, as I was deep in the weeds of trying to figure out how to get this business off the ground and grow my audience, I remember thinking, “wouldn’t it be great if someday I can have a successful business by just making one leather bag?” Now, I find myself eating those words on days when I’m sewing 40+ Porter totes! Crossing things off the list, filling and packing orders, and generally completing things, keep my locomotive going and I’m able to see creative/free days at the end of the tunnel. I’m not sure if utilizing creativity as a reward is a good or bad thing, but right now it’s working, so I’m just going to go with it.
AC: Do you critique your own work?
JU: ALWAYS. I am constantly making notes of changes to be made after I see someone out in the world wearing a H+D bag. Since leather is something that ages as you wear it and, in many ways conforms to the life you live, it’s great to be able to see the way someone’s bag has patinaed and shows the marks of their life. Finding someone you trust to give you honest critiques is hard to find and when it is found it is such a gift. Since I am such a small business I am able to edit and make changes on the fly.
AC: Are there parts of your life that you always make a priority? That you struggle to make a priority?
JU: Right now I think I’m in the struggle that all young parents face, the classic work/life balance. It is very hard to find the right balance where I do not feel guilty for neglecting H+D (my first baby) and also not feel guilty for neglecting my actual child. I suppose it will come, and until it does, I’ll be trying very hard to navigate through the struggle!
AC: Where does inspiration come from? Where does inspiration live?
JU: For me, inspiration for H+D lives in real life. H+D bags are built for life and built to last. The needs of life spur inspiration and, as my life has changed (becoming a parent), I now recognize those small needs even more – i.e. you need a bag strap long enough to swing onto your shoulder with one hand when you have a baby in the other hand.
(This project is made possible in-part by a fellowship from the Alabama State Council on the Arts.)