By Laurie GoodladMarch 16th 2021
Laurie Goodlad

Leatherworker Lisa Sumner runs a creative business from her croft on the island of Fetlar. Lisa moved to Shetland, with husband Dave and children Mykala (15) and Jack (13), two-and-a-half years ago from the Cumbrian countryside.

Having never visited Fetlar before, the Sumners arrived on the island with four horses, two dogs, two rabbits and a bucket-load of optimism to start a new life away from the busy Lake District.

“It was just getting busier and busier” in Cumbria, Lisa says. “To end up with, we just stayed at home, even on bank holidays, as it was just so busy.”

Struggling to get a foothold back in their native Cumbria after spending 13 years living in America, the family felt a move to Shetland would give them more house for their money and a slower pace of life.

“The idea of living on a remote rural island has always appealed to me. We did loads of research before we came here. We had visited Shetland before and really liked it – so we had a good idea of what life would be like here.”

The family rented a property in Fetlar for the first couple of years before buying a croft last August.

“We enjoy the crofting way of life andthe scenery. I love the sea and the cliffs and getting the chance to walk the dogs and ride the ponies.”

Life isn't without its challenges and, Lisa admits, it has been “somewhat overwhelming at times.” The traditional but-an’-ben house that they live in has been uninhabited for 11 years. “There’s a tremendous amount of work to be done, but we do have hot water now!” says Lisa.

Before moving to Shetland, Lisa worked as a riding instructor. It was during this time that she taught herself leatherworking and began creating her own pieces. Lisa’s Leatherwork started as a business in 2017. Her work is intricate and beautifully crafted, with many of the pieces incorporating the unique dye-colouring style of fusing colours to create a blended colour effect on the leather. Looking at a beautiful journal, Lisa says that “the colours represent the mirrie dancers [northern lights].”

“I started the business in my shed in Cumbria, then moved to the shed in Fetlar, and now we’re in the portacabin here”, she says, pointing to her workshop that sits behind a roofless stone barn. The long-term plan is to move the workshop into the barn, reroofing it and lining out the walls to create a bigger space with room for a little craft shop.

Producing hand-crafted bags, belts, wallets, purses, journals, knitting belts, pet and equestrian items, Lisa also carries out repairs and takes commissions for bespoke pieces. “My products are made to be long-lasting and practical,” she explains.

Lisa uses British where possible, importing the leather from Yorkshire and using creative techniques to give a unique dye effect on the finished pieces. Her processes are traditional, and she rarely uses machines, favouring hand-stitching where possible. She uses natural vegetable tanned leather, using natural materials like tree bark, which is more environmentally friendly than chrome tanned leather.

Adapting to her new environment, Lisa creates traditional leather knitting belts, which are an integral part of creating knitted garments in Shetland. She supplies them to several local shops.

It’s easy to see why she is inspired by living in Fetlar. The view from her workshop window looks across to the sandy beach at Tresta and Papil Water, both framed by the dominating cliffs of Lambhoga behind. The light in the workshop is natural and pure, creating the ideal space to work and create.

Shetland’s thriving arts and crafts scene was one of the things that appealed to Lisa when the family were considering a move to Shetland.

“The creative arts are really well supported here, so I wanted to be somewhere that I can expand my creative business,” says Lisa.

Although traditional jobs are hard to come by in places like Fetlar, it is a good place to have a creative business.

“If you can work from home and sell online, using your online tools, then it’s as good as anywhere else. There are shops that I can get my work out to, and there are lots of events going on so you can get out to these events with your work.

“There are also visitors to the isle, they’ll often pop into the workshop, and there are lots of other creative people here. We have a makers’ group where we talk about what we’re making, how to improve things, how to sell things, how to market things.

“The greatest challenge that I face here is just getting things delivered, but other than that – and maybe the poor broadband connection sometimes – it’s a good place to work.”

Lisa enjoys the freedom and flexibility of living in a rural community and of being her own boss. On nice days she can choose to take a longer dog walk or go for a hike along the coast, and work later at night, or, if it’s a rainy weekend, “I just work through the weekend – it’s the flexibility that I enjoy,” she says.

Husband Dave has also thrown himself into community life on the island. With a population of just over 50 permanent residents, everyone has to pitch in and do their bit. Dave, like many islanders, wears several hats. His roles include working on the lifeline ferry service, serving as a retained fire-fighter, emergency first responder and mechanic.

Fetlar, like many rural communities, depends on young families to allow the community, and school, to thrive. At the moment, Fetlar Primary School, which takes children up to the age of 12, only has one pupil. Losing the school would be a devastating blow to the community, and Lisa would love to see a couple of young families move into the isle.

“The island does need some young families, and if you have a creative business where you can work from home, Fetlar is ideal.”

Lisa’s children are now at Anderson High School in Lerwick and stay in the Halls of Residence during the week, returning to Fetlar at the weekends and school holidays.

Shetland is a fantastic place to bring up children, says Lisa: “You can really just let them go a bit. They have the freedom, and you feel that they are safe because everyone in the community watches out for them.”

Despite moving from England to a remote island, the children have more freedom now than they had before as there are better transport links in Shetland. Daughter Mykala can catch the ferry from Fetlar and get an onward bus to Lerwick to spend the day with friends before returning again at night.

“In Cumbria, I had to drive them everywhere as there was limited public transport, so they actually have more freedom and independence here.”

In her spare time, Lisa enjoys her daily sea swim – without skins. “This really helps me get through the winter,” she says, as endorphins are released with the rush of cold water. As a family, they enjoy long hacks across the picturesque sands of Tresta Beach.

Lisa, Dave and their children have very much settled into island life and embraced a new, slower pace of living. “It’s been hard work,” Lisa says, “and we’ve had our moments” but, they plan on staying in the isle indefinitely, renovating the house, nurturing the croft land and growing the business.

Since moving to Shetland, Lisa’s mum Sheila has also made the move north, taking the brave decision to sell up her family home after 56 years and relocate to Fetlar at the age of 83. In doing so, proving that it really is never too late to make a fresh start.

You can find Lisa online @lisaleatherworks or her website Lisa's Leatherworks, where you can support her work by giving her a follow online or buying a hand-crafted item. She is also part of the Shetland Craft Trail, and she welcomes visitors to her studio in Fetlar.