We talk to ranch manager turned "rawhider" Leland Hensley about his art, his process, and his inspiration.
Native Texan Leland Hensley has worked in some seriously Western capacities. For a time he was a ranch manager. On the day we interviewed him, he was working with survey crews in the oil and gas industry.
But the most Western and artistic of his endeavors — and the hat he’s happiest wearing — is “rawhider.”
Hensley got hooked on the practical art of rawhide braiding while attending Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas. After graduating, he took a job as a ranch manager and continued honing his braiding skills whenever he had time. He found it was a great way to unwind after a long, hard day on the ranch.
These days, Hensley spends most of his time braiding rawhide, exhibiting his pieces, and teaching and elevating the art. But he still works at other things on occasion. “These other jobs actually kind of help me get out of the shop,” he says. “Sometimes you’re in the shop so long that it gets a little old. This gets me out in the fresh air. I get to deal a lot with ranchers. It helps me indirectly with my rawhide braiding.”
Inducted into the prestigious Traditional Cowboy Arts Association in 2001, Hensley was the first Texan to be voted in. He has developed a reputation among collectors, working cowboys, and his fellow craftsmen for excellence in design, beauty, and functionality. Lately he’s been concentrating on making several pieces for the 2022 TCAA sale and exhibition. “I need to be ready by middle of July with these three pieces I’m making: two quirts and a bolo tie.”
We caught up with Hensley at his home and workshop in Meridian, Texas, to talk about rawhide braiding and the TCAA’s upcoming annual show.
Cowboys & Indians: Rawhide braiding is one of the four arts that the TCAA preserves, along with saddlemaking, bit and spur making, and silversmithing. Of the four, I think it might be the least known.
Leland Hensley: I think it is probably least known. We’re kind of the bottom of the totem pole, mainly because with the other disciplines there’s a certain intrinsic value in the materials themselves, especially if they use silver. Some of my pieces have silver, but for most part braiding was a bunkhouse trade. Guys braided stuff to use — things like reatas, headstalls, bosals, quirts, reins. Very few took it to any other level. It was also really time-intensive—not that the other disciplines aren’t. I always liked braidwork and couldn’t afford it and thought I’d just make my own. Lots of people think that but don’t realize how much work it is till they get into it. I started out with that mindset, but I always wanted to do better.
C&I: What drew you to braidwork and keeps it interesting?
Hensley: What really drew me to it is that a true rawhider is in control of every aspect of the final product. I don’t have to rely on anyone else to produce my piece. If there’s a problem, it’s my fault. Other than the making of the animal itself, I’m in charge of everything. I skin it right. I cure the hide right. There are braiders who don’t produce their own hides and have to rely on others for materials. For me, a true rawhider will be in charge of that aspect also. That’s one of the satisfying things, and a little more of a learning curve because it’s a whole other process that has to be learned over time. The hard part and the inviting part both is that it’s always different. Every hide is different. I can take two that are the same age, breed, and color and they’ll work different. There are two aspects: the braiding part and the preparation of hides.
Preparation goes all the way back to the skinning of the animal. I don’t want any flesh cuts in there. String cutting and preparation have to be done in a way I’m happy with. About the time I think I’ve got braiding figured out, there’ll be a curve ball. That draws me to it, because there is that degree of difficulty and not everyone wants to deal with that.
Above: "Mae's bracelet," unique rawhide design inspired by a silver and turquoise bracelet that belonged to Hensley's wife's grandmother.
C&I: What’s your favorite thing to make?
Hensley: Probably quirts, mainly because there’s different styles — around the country and in Mexico, too — and you can get creative on them and still keep them functional.
C&I: You’ve said that after a hard day on the ranch, braiding is a good way to unwind. What about it helps you relax?
Hensley: Well, there are certain things that you do while braiding that you’ve done so many times you don’t have to think about it. Between muscle memory and experience with something you’ve done a lot of, your mind can relax. Mine drifts, and I can think about other projects or the one I’m working on but at a later stage and not have to be focused as much on the moment to pay such close attention that I can’t think about other things. A lot of my ideas for other projects come from that time. Even if I am focused on what I’m doing, I’m still seeing something else in my head. For me that’s relaxing.
C&I: Tell us about your workshop.
Hensley: Several years ago, when I had my house built, my son was young, and it was just me and him. I had a section of the house made into my shop. That way I could be there in the house. I worked a lot late at night. With a young child, I was busy during day with him. We raise some cows, horses, and some sheep, and that stuff has to be taken care of. The best time to work was at night after he went to bed and things quieted down.
Right now I’m in the process of building a new shop and a bunkhouse. The bunkhouse is on one end and the studio shop’s on the other. That way when I do workshops, people can stay with me instead of me having to send them to town to stay at a hotel. It’s kind of hard in a little town. Where I am in Meridian, it’s about seven miles from a hotel. Sometimes I’ve had people come in from out of the country. If I’ve picked them up at the airport, they don’t have a way to get around. Having a bunkhouse right here alleviates all that. We can give folks a place to stay and provide all the meals. We can work as early as we want and as late as we want.
The new shop will be much nicer. Right now my shop is about 15 by 30. The new one will be bigger — big enough for braiding. I worked for Big Bend saddlery for long time, and so I did a lot of leather work. In my current shop, I haven’t had enough room for saddle stuff. The new shop will be 25 by 50, so I’m going to have room to do something that I haven’t had an opportunity to do in the recent past.
Above: Mini buckle bracelet collaboration with silversmith Scott Hardy.
C&I: You need space. What about the tools and materials you need for rawhide braiding?
Hensley: There’s only one tool that is required, maybe two: a sharp knife and a braiding awl. But as you go along, you find things that will make stuff easier and you can refine certain things with other tools. When you cut strings, for years people used a sharp knife and their thumb as a guide. Now it’s more precise. I have a cutter and a beveler. There are several that are made for the braiding industry, and I had one built that works for me. I also have a splitter that lets me split down to the thickness I need. That’s a whole other conversation: what type and thickness of hide is good for this project or that. I won’t use a cowhide for any of my really fine knots or jewelry. You have to take the string down so thin and narrow that you lose the strength, so a younger animal like a yearling or calf would be used for those things.
C&I: Why is it important to you to preserve the art of rawhide braiding, and what role does the TCAA play?
Hensley: When I started out, there were not too many braiders; they were scattered and few. In my part of the world in Texas, it was more utilitarian and wasn’t really anything someone would show you how to do. There weren’t a lot of books to show you like there are now. As opposed to up in the Northwest, where the work was more refined. Seeing finer work from up there was a draw.
The TCAA has made a huge impact in the braiding world. As members, we’re all teachers and proud of TCAA and what they’ve done. We’re passing along the skills. A lot of my workshops will consist of someone who has gotten a fellowship or scholarship of some sort from the TCAA. There are so many braiders out there now, and a lot are getting good because they’ve been exposed to workshops the TCAA put on, and to outside influences, like Argentina. I made my first trip there in 2002. I knew there was a big rawhide culture down there, and I wanted to learn techniques to improve — not copy — what I do here. We brought two Argentine braiders here, became friends, and they eventually became TCAA guys. They liked what TCAA was doing and wanted to be part of it. We told them it was labor-intensive and the logistics would be hard because they’d have to travel to the U.S. twice a year. But they were determined, applied, and got voted in. Over time they’ve been learning the difference between South American and North American styles.
Now you can see YouTube videos of people from all over doing braiding. I think it’s an important trade. It needs to be kept up with, or it will die. If we don’t elevate expectations, then you fall into mediocrity.
C&I: Speaking of preservation, will dogs chew braided rawhide?
Hensley: Absolutely! You really gotta watch ’em. My wife, back when I first met her, had ordered a bracelet from me. She wore it and had left it on the back of her couch and her little dog chewed on it. When she returned it to me, I made her another one and put a tag on the chewed one that said “bad doggie.” I keep that around.
Handle, Texas-style quirt.
From our August/September 2022 Issues
See Leland Hensley’s work at the annual TCAA sale on Saturday, October 1 (preview on Friday, September 30; exhibition on view till January 2, 2023) at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. Visit him online at lelandhensley.com.