Janell Fox never meant for this to happen. But as she sliced through a sheath of soft, navy leather on the table in front of her with her rotary cutter, she smiled. It had become a true joy in her life.
The joy of designing, cutting, sewing and selling her own line of Maine-made leather handbags. Janell’s Bags.
“I love color,” she says, and a nearby wall stacked floor to ceiling with different colored leather hides backs up her claim. “Life’s too short to carry a brown and black purse!”
When Janell’s business started there really was no way to predict what would happen — Janell and her husband, Jerry, lived in Pennsylvania at the time, so Maine-made was about the farthest possible thing from their minds. One morning, when Janell was brainstorming how to make some extra money for a new camera, Jerry suggested that she should make and sell some custom diaper bags. And even though she initially called him crazy for the idea, she “couldn’t quite let it rest.”
Janell had a prototype bag finished for him by the time he came home from work that evening.
The transition to leather came slowly, over the last three and a half years, a good while after their move to Maine. Janell says the tipping point came after Jerry just kept bringing it up, saying, hey, leather, Janell, what about leather? We should do leather. At least try leather. “You’re nuts,” Janell told him. “I’ve never sewn leather in my life!”
But just like before, he “just knew she could.” They picked up a few hides from a nearby tannery and Janell tried to make a bag with an existing cloth design. After a bit of tweaking, they loaded up the test subjects and brought them to a craft show. The response? WOW.
At this point Janell hardly works with cloth at all. Ultimately, she says, the leather is far more rewarding. Less forgiving, yes, but also higher quality, longer lasting and just plain “classy.” This year she made almost 200 leather handbags, all of her own design.
“It feels like I’ve been sewing all year,” she says with a laugh.
The business is doing so well that Jerry’s able to stay at home part time now — their goal is to turn Janell’s Bags into a family business that allows them to both stay at home, and for their kids to be able to help with certain things as they get older. Janell’s older daughter, Erika, is only nine, but keeps asking when she’ll be allowed to cut the leather. Her youngest, Alani, 4, loves to help put the rings on the purse handles.
Janell says didn’t know how much she would love designing bags until she did her first one. Often she’ll stay up dreaming of bags at night instead of sleeping. She’s starting to venture into the land of custom colors and padded laptop pockets. Her only requirement?
“I like classy. So, I just design classy,” she laughs. “Like, I can’t think simple, it’s just got to be all or nothing.”