My name is Rusty Zylstra, and I run Mercy Leather Work with my fiancée, Kait. We live in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
I specialize in making travel backpacks and messenger bags. I also make custom bags for specific purposes, along with wallets, hip pouches, and bike accessories. My materials usually include leather, all metal side release buckles and durable waxed canvas.
My desire to work with my hands stems from wanting to provide people with a product that isn’t going to break and deteriorate in a few months. My intention as a craftsman is to make a product as durable as possible. I can only hope that someone who buys a bag from me today will still be wearing it in fifty years.
I try to keep my materials different from other companies and to keep functionality the main focus. No plastic is ever used (usually the first thing to break on bags). I provide a hardware and material that will only get better in time.
Conscious consumerism means buying an item from a company or person with the intent to have it last you the rest of your life. There might be the possibility of that item breaking, but if you buy from a quality company, they will replace or repair that item. This takes patience, as there are so many corporations and factories that make things which are literally built to fall apart apart. The more time I spend as an independent craftsman, the more I find myself seeking out high quality and companies and makers with good ethics.
For me, Etsy is a resource where I can shop online and know that what I’m looking at will be handmade (or vintage). If you can’t find a blacksmith in your town, you’ll be able to find one on Etsy. The same goes for leatherworkers, woodworkers and any other type of specialized craft. For me personally, Etsy has been a fantastic way to get my product and business name outside of just my local community – I’ve been able to sell my bags to customers all over the world. Etsy has been the venue to help get my business off of the ground.
Within the first minute of touching something, it’s clear whether it’s made by hand or not. Because of my business, I’ve been able to understand other craftsmen more and the time/effort that goes into each and every product. It’s made me think about the way everything is built. I’ve become more appreciative of the handmade process.
All Photographs by Jacob Lewis Ferguson.