With her 1-year-old, Ayrton, down for his afternoon nap, and son Kaleo, 5, happily engrossed in a computer game, Gretchen Cardoso reaches for her mallet. Positioning a metal stamp over a thick leather strip, she begins to pound, marking it with an imprint of her own design, a breaking wave.
Cardoso's Makawao home is filled with the tools and materials of her newfound passion - on any given day you might find a braided coil of rawhide bullwhip on her kitchen table, a half-finished saddle in her garage, a pair of deer hides tanning in the backyard.
Growing up in Portland, Ore., before moving to Maui in 1999 with her husband, Danny, the 33-year-old Cardoso might seem an unlikely person to take up the tradition of Hawaiian leatherwork.
Gretchen Cardoso takes advantage of a quiet moment to work on her latest project.
ILIMA LOOMIS photo
Cardoso got her first close-up look at a handmade Hawaiian saddle about four years ago. A professional farrier (someone who shoes horses and cares for their hooves), Cardoso is a lifelong horsewoman whose own horse, Hotske, is an unusual breed with a back that few commercially made saddles fit.
"Leatherwork sounded kind of cool," she says. "It just got me thinking."
Cardoso had begun "doodling around" with different designs on a few scraps of leather when her work caught the attention of family friend Ashley Borsum. When Borsum needed a new pair of chaps to wear as Miss Rodeo Hawaii, she called on Cardoso, along with experienced island leatherworkers Pat Tavares and Merton Kekiwi Sr., who teamed up on the project.
The chaps were a hit, and Cardoso was hooked.
"It's still a little hard to explain where my passion came from," she says. "I just felt that the Hawaiian style of saddles and leatherwork, and the history of ranching here was so unique. Maybe it takes fresh eyes from the Mainland to realize how special it is and want to preserve it."
Hawaiian cowboys, or paniolo, developed their own distinctive style of leatherwork and saddle-making, with the most unique feature being a way of draping the pommel and horn of the saddle with a single piece of rawhide, which is tied by braided tassels to the girth that holds it on the horse's body.
Once her interest was sparked, Cardoso set about learning as much as she could about the history of the craft and how to do it. But it was harder than it looked. Not much information was available online, and since Cardoso wasn't from Maui she didn't have ready access to kupuna who could pass on their knowledge.
She started by renting instructional videos online to learn the basics of leatherwork, then dove into the craft to learn by trial and error. Once she started making things, Cardoso said, the real experts finally started coming "out of the woodwork" to answer questions and offer advice.
"I've learned that if I want to ask somebody about something, I need to make an attempt at it first, like make a whip and then bring it to them to critique," she says. "I get so much more information about how to do it if I make one for them to look at than if I just ask them for advice off the top of their head."
It was Maui leatherworker Henry Silva, renowned for his knowledge of traditional rawhide-braiding techniques, who advised Cardoso to try working with axis deer hides - a material she now prefers because its strength and thinness allow for tighter and more intricate braiding. Plus, "it's definitely available," she notes.
As she's progressed with guidance from Silva, Kekiwi, Tavares and other experts, Cardoso has sought to pass on and preserve what she's learned. She's produced around 20 instructional videos that she makes available on her YouTube channel, MauiFarrier. Her 25-minute documentary on Maui saddles can be viewed at www.vimeo.com/50569227.
"I want to help keep it going," she says. "Being in our 30s, we kind of bridge the gap between the kupuna and the youngest generation, who looks to the Internet first to learn something."
Cardoso is also working with two King Kekaulike High School students who are making Hawaiian saddles for their senior projects. And she's also reaching out to the very youngest generation - son Kaleo already enjoys stamping patterns on his own scraps of leather.
So far, Cardoso has made four saddles for herself and others and is working on a fifth. What began as a personal hobby has expanded to a small side business, as she has begun accepting commissions to create saddles, belts, chaps and other items, and she even gets some calls to repair handbags or design personalized wallets.
But, she says, the biggest reward of her journey has been the opportunity to meet and spend time with some of Maui's real paniolo.
"It's kind of all about the people," she says. "The craft is an expression of the people and the culture."
* Ilima Loomis is a Maui-based writer and editor. Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at email@example.com. Neighbors and "The State of Aloha," written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.