Bags with Benefits: How one Alabama company crafts beautiful bags and helps the community

At Biscuit Leather Company, making bags and helping others go hand-in-hand.

photo Bags with Benefits: How one Alabama company crafts beautiful bags and helps the community images

    By Christiana Roussel

    Photos by Rob Culpepper

    This story appears in Birmingham magazine's February 2017 issue. Subscribe today!

    Three years ago, when she did a photoshoot for a woman who taught her to craft her first leather bag, Stayner had no idea her new hobby would evolve in the way it has. Friends took notice of her new bag and wanted one of their own. Others had ideas for tweaks they wanted to make to existing bags on the market. Stayner was willing to take on the task, but there was one major obstacle: time. And maybe hands. Hoping to grow her business in a thoughtful and intentional way, Stayner turned to Alabama businesswoman Natalie Chanin for direction.

    Based in Florence, Ala., Chanin and her company Alabama Chanin have received worldwide acclaim for not only a modern approach to the age-old art of hand-stitchery, but for their duplicable business model with independent contractors. The business lessons that Chanin learned are taught at small workshops in her North Alabama headquarters.

    Chanin's approach of using independent contractors to complete custom, detail-oriented work is not uncommon in the fashion world. To delineate the difference between traditional employees and independent contractors, the IRS has a prescribed set of rules that apply to these individuals. Among the many criteria, workers must own their own tools; must have access to other work; must have some sort of investment in the equipment or materials used; they may not work on-site; and they must be hired already-skilled.

    Stayner knew that if she wanted to design and create more leather goods, she needed more hands on deck, and she found that through the hands of independent contractors. It was out of this initiative that Stayner's non-profit, BLC Workshop, came about. The goals of the workshop are two-fold. The first goal is to develop a cadre of skilled stitchers to assemble and finish Biscuit Leather Company designs, and the second is to empower community members with meaningful work that enables them to spend more time with their families, while earning an income. To ensure the proper execution of her vision, Stayner assembled a board: an accountant, a financial advisor, an attorney, and a leadership consultant, rounded out by a few creative types.

    Stayner says she wants more for and from her workshop participants than just the products they can contribute to her business.

    "It is not just 'Stitch a bag and here's twenty bucks,'" Stayner says. "We want to help get them to independence and possibly to have their own businesses. We are starting out with what we know: stitching. But the goal is to get them over that hump of not having enough money each month and help them to still be available to their children while developing business skills; to be entrepreneurs."

    She already has three independent contractors--Shorne, a single dad to four children who works as a janitor by day and stitches in the evenings; Vicki, a grandmother raising her daughter and grandchild at home; and Cindy, a stitcher who also serves on the BLC Workshop board.

    Each workshop member is paired with a financial sponsor, who provides them with a microloan of $500. Part of the independent contracting business model requires that stitchers purchase kits of raw materials to be assembled into a final product. These microloans provide funding for longer terms and at lower rates than from traditional sources. The financial sponsors also provide the workshop members with a mentor and a personal cheerleader. Stayner adds, "There is a real accountability factor here. We feel like you are more likely to be responsible to someone you know versus someone you do not have a relationship with. We already have four sponsors signed up!"

    As the company grows, Stayner will continue to help independent contractors flourish. The result of their hard work, paired with Stayner's creative eye, is a collection of beautiful, hand-crafted bags that benefit the community in more ways than one.

    How to Get Involved

    Sign up to be a sponsorContact Becky Stayner at becky@biscuitleathercompany.com if you are interested in providing a microloan to a BLC Workshop stitcher.

    Come to an upcoming Sip & Sew Fundraiser Scheduled for February 2, from 6 p.m.-8 p.m., participants will have the chance to learn a new skill and make a bag of their own, all with proceeds going to the BLC Workshop.

    Buy a bag...or a belt or a wallet or a journal. More products sold means more work for more stitchers. Stayner uses only the finest leathers in her goods, which are meant to last a lifetime and only improve with age and use. Splurge on a custom creation or get gameday-ready with the Two-Bite Bag, which meets SEC stadium size restrictions. See more products at BiscuitLeatherCompany.com.

    This story was updated on Feb. 14, 2017 at 9:55 a.m. to remove incorrect facts about Natalie Chanin filing for bankruptcy. 

    Article Bags with Benefits: How one Alabama company crafts beautiful bags and helps the community compiled by www.al.com