Native Texan Leland Hensley got his start in rawhide braiding while attending college at Sul Ross State University in Alpine. Like many college students, his tastes exceeded his budget.
“I saw some rawhide work I really liked, but being a college kid, I couldn’t afford it,” he says. “So I made my own.”
With only a few how-to books to guide him, Hensley pored over images of rawhide work with a magnifying class and attempted to replicate what he saw.
“I ruined a lot of stuff at first,” he laughs. “It was basically trial and error for the first ten years.”
Today, Hensley is considered one of the finest rawhide braiders in the world, and his work—from headstalls to bolo ties—is museum worthy. Work of his caliber requires quality materials, which is why Hensley not only braids rawhide, he makes it, carefully selecting, stretching, and preparing his own rawhide skin.
“There’s as much to making good rawhide as there is to braiding it,” he says of the laborious process. “After the amount of time I put into making rawhide, I feel like I’m married to it.”
Hensley explains the qualities of good rawhide almost reverentially.
“Good rawhide has life,” he says. “Most people think of rawhide as something hard and stiff, but when it’s made right, rawhide has incredible flexibility and life. It feels better than leather.”
Hensley constantly endeavors to expand his creativity and skillset, a pursuit that took him to Argentina—home to gauchos and a strong cowboying culture—for inspiration.
“Their level of creativity is just so high,” he says. “I was able to incorporate some of their techniques and styles into my own work. Their methods have had quite an influence on rawhide braiding in North America.”
The Traditional Cowboy Arts Association—of which Hensely has been a member since 2001—helped foster this cross-cultural collaboration by bringing master Argentinian craftsmen to a TCAA seminar series. The TCAA is an organization dedicated to preserving the art of saddlemaking, bit and spur making, silversmithing, and rawhide braiding; and the multicultural roundtable discussion inspired craftsmen from both sides of the equator.
Learning opportunities like this are just one of the myriad reasons Hensley—a TCAA member since 2001—strongly supports the organization.
“Some of the knowledge and practices of the old Western craftsmen were on the verge of being completely gone,” he says. “And the TCAA has made them more visible. It gets people more interested, and stokes passion in our unique heritage. We’re producing traditional cowboy gear that will educate people long after we’re gone.”