While punching holes for a hand-tooled leather bag, Annalea Mills recounted the incredible nautical journey that brought her to the studio, Annalea Mills Leatherwork, she occupies in Antigua’s Falmouth Harbor. There was never an intent to become a sailor nor an artisan leathersmith, but the two talents are now firmly anchored in her heart and soul.
Sailing grandparents and uncles introduced Mills to the island and the world of boats at the sweet age of sixteen. Several visits, each greater in length, set the course for a post high-school adventure. Crewing in Antigua led to a stateside passage and an Atlantic crossing, all followed by sailing courses in Toronto from dinghies up to instructor.
A delivery from Panama to Antigua with a favorite uncle taught crucial lessons. “The engine broke. We had to sail in and landed on Bolero’s mooring,” she said. The owner of the 73ft (22.2m) S & S yawl was so impressed, he insisted she sail with him during the Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta. “He wanted me to tell him how to drive,” she exclaimed.
Chatting with Mills, it’s easy to see that she’s calm and unpretentious yet this petite sailor challenged the yachting scene while employed in some serious, big-boat positions. She served as first mate aboard Tivoli (24m) became the first female deckhand on Fleurtje (57m); was bosun on the gaff ketch, Irene (40m) and bowman on Pamina (37m) for the Jubilee Racing Circuit. Some of those jobs meant trips aloft.
One sky ride, she was asked to do leatherwork on Tivoli’s spreaders. “I thought it would be easy,” she laughed, “but I re-did it three times to get it right!” On Irene, there was more leatherwork plus making sheaths and wallets on the side.
After a delivery from Spain to California, her fascination with a palm and needle flared. During a summer of surfing, she found outlets for quality materials. “I bought quite nice leather and started making things on delivery.”
No books, no courses, Mills is self-taught. “I always liked making things with my hands,” she said, “a bit like my father, a farrier and blacksmith.” After years of trial and error, methods of construction have changed. “I have my own way of doing things.”
Returning to Antigua, she worked as an extra in Pirates of the Caribbean then made a total leap into the business of creating leather products. There were years working in spaces alongside other artists; a studio in a rented beach house; and later, a workshop on her own boat. The current shop, light, airy and in the middle of yacht central, is perfect.
Anyone passing Annalea Mills Leatherwork will see Mills working at a bench covered with a rainbow of leather. On it is the labor-saving punch she uses, fabricated with help from her father. He also created a pneumatic punch, both upgrades from a hand-held rotary tool. But when asked to make repairs to old gear, Mills knows just what to do. “I use a palm and pliers.”
Commissions come in all shapes and sizes. The trickiest requests involved covering enormous running backstay blocks and a massive shackle. When asked about the most unusual job, she held up a horse racing saddle, “Maybe this,” she said smiling, “or the doggy life jacket I made.” Her favorite projects involve a challenge. “An odd block or something – I cover it, make it look beautiful again.”
Looking around the studio, it’s clear what catches the eye of customers – gorgeous bags of assorted size and color; belts; wallets and tassels. “I love every single thing about this,” she proclaimed. “I love that at the end of the day, I’ve made something with my hands.” And anyone lucky enough to own one of her creations loves it, too.