Cowgirl Craftswoman Justine Nelson
- December 2, 2020
- Tiffany Schwenke
Cowgirl Craftswoman Justine Nelson is making a name for herself with her quality made western gear. Utilizing her talent and skills with everything from harvesting cow hides for braiding rawhide to custom built saddles, Justine is making using gear that are works of art.
I recently asked Justine to tell us a little about herself and how she developed into the master craftswoman she has become.
Backstory: I grew up on the outskirts of a small town in Southern Idaho. We weren’t a ranching family, but I was always drawn to the life.
The desire to build and create has been a part of me from my early childhood. 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! Here was the secret to round braids! I set about practicing braids and knots. However my teenage budget for tools and supplies was severely limited. So that meant I worked mostly with bailing twine and bundles of leather lace remnants. 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. I have been a regular at the Rocky Mountain Leather Trade Show since I was 17. While I have attended many of the classes and lectures that have been offered, I have had almost no experience working one on one with a more experienced leather craftsman. So while I now consider myself a fairly accomplished leatherworker, it has taken a long time. Especially since I could only acquire tools one at a time. Saving nearly every dollar I earned to buy them. In 2006 I officially opened as a business. I have been busily building a variety of leather goods ever since.
I continued to braid, but found more of a market for leather goods. So braiding was not my main focus. In 2016, I was awarded a scholarship from the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association. This allowed me to spend a few days working directly with member Nate Wald. He was an excellent teacher. I gained a great amount of knowledge working with him. He was able to refine some of my methods and help me with different areas in which I was struggling.
My rawhide work has been very well received and it now comprises a good portion of my shop income. I find that my leather working skills serve me well as a braider. Not only am I able to build my own poppers and connectors, but I also have the tools and equipment necessary to make other useful/necessary items such as stitched cores. I enjoy diversity, and find that working both leather and rawhide adds to my efficiency.
I have tried hard to develop an eye for balance and symmetry. Using the gear I built on my own horses has taught me a lot about quality and durability in construction. There is great satisfaction in using my own gear and in seeing it used by others.
Favorite thing to make: I don’t really have a favorite thing. I enjoy diversity and seeing my gear being put to good use makes me happy. Rawhide braiding is a challenge I enjoy, but I find building saddles and creating useful and decorative leather pieces to be equally enjoyable.
Future plans: I intend to continue perfecting my craft. I have an opportunity to spend some time working with the TCAA braiders to continue honing my rawhide work. I’m working on improving my horsemanship to better understand how my gear functions.
To see more of Justine’s leather and rawhide work please like and follow her page –
About Tiffany Schwenke
My family has been ranching and raising horses for over 100 years. We raise, train, and market AQHA horses at North Four Mile Creek Horse Ranch. We produce the annual event WYO WILD RIDE RANCH RODEO. I am a wife and a mother to 3 amazing...