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Rusty Dorr grew up in a small town in the countryside of upstate New York with science-minded parents who imparted their daughter with a solid work ethic. In her family, Dorr explains, everything was practical and connected to nature and the outdoors.
“My family could all draw and make things,” she remembers. “That’s how I spent my time as a young person.” In addition to creativity, ingenuity was fostered. “If it needed to be done, you probably could figure out how to do it.”
That can-do, entrepreneurial spirit is hard-wired into Dorr, a self-taught artist who has been handcrafting Native American and Western-inspired outerwear and accessories for 44 years. Dorr’s products are made from the highest quality deerskin, moose, buffalo, elk, as well as Spanish lamb, sheared beaver and a limited number of wild coyotes.
Dorr hand-braids the seams of her pieces with hand-cut deerskin lacing and adorns them with precisely-cut fringe and beautiful buttons made of bone, horn, antler and silver. She also uses well-placed hairpipe and beadwork to give her one-of-a-kind, unisex pieces a distinguished look.
“I have clients who’ve told me that when they feel down, they put on one of my jackets and they feel good, they feel ready for the day and for that power meeting they have to go to,” reveals Dorr. “It just makes them feel empowered; I know I feel better when I put mine on!” Dorr defines her customers—many of whom have become collectors of her work—as kind, considerate, inquisitive and keenly aware of their place in the natural world.
Dorr does all of the work on the pieces herself, using the same simple tools she started with over 40 years ago. The tools of her trade are a fid (a tool used for braiding), flat needles for lacing, a single-hole drive punch, a maul wrapped in rawhide and a rubber tile. The most “complicated” instrument she uses—other than her own two hands—are spring-loaded scissors.
“Fringe is the last thing I cut, and every cut has to be perfect or else I have to take it apart and put in another piece of skin,” explains Dorr. “ A new pair of scissors will cut through bison, elk and moose like it’s paper.” Dorr also has an antique fur machine that she uses to sew together the fur pelts and another machine to make shoulder pads when needed. This represents the only machine work that touches her limited-edition creations.
The hides Dorr uses for her designs are from wild animals that were hunted for meat. “Everything I make with the leathers was eaten, and that’s important to me because I believe in balance,” explains Dorr.
The Chieftain, which replicates the breastplates worn by Native Americans to deflect attack, is Dorr’s piece de resistance and the design that has been in her line the longest. The front—with its hairpipe beading—has remained consistent over the years, though Dorr changes things up on the back of the jacket. Dorr says it takes about 40 hours to craft each Chieftain coat, cutting, punching and lacing every element by hand, as she does with everything she creates.
Ever since she was a young girl, Dorr knew she wanted to make a living doing something with her hands. “I don’t want to spend my life at a machine watching a needle going in and out all day,” she says of the importance of the handcrafted nature of her designs. “When I worked at a leather factory in New York I learned a lot—including what I didn’t want to do: manage people, watch the needle go in and out all day, and use cowhide.”
Dorr says she is meticulous in selecting the skins she uses to create her coats, looking for pieces that “speak to her.” “I want to make jackets that are filled with the life of the creature who wore them,” she says. “It’s really about the spiritual nature of how these creatures lived.”
She seeks out the scarred sections of the hides and showcases them in exceptional ways that really resonate with her customers. For example, she remembers getting a moose skin from the tannery that had been nubucked. While examining the skins to develop her design, Dorr saw a section that had claw marks about two feet long and seven inches wide, where the young moose had been attacked by a mountain lion but was likely saved by its mother and healed over time.
“I cut it in such a way that the scar was down the back in a deep yoke,” Dorr says. “I made it into a really fancy big man’s jacket because I knew this was really masculine—it was a warrior jacket!”
The hides Dorr uses for her designs are from wild animals that were hunted for meat. “Everything I make with the leathers was eaten, and that’s important to me because I believe in balance,” explains Dorr. “I get the ‘leftovers.’”
Dorr makes her home in a remote area of the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York, which provides inspiration for her work. “I’m fortunate to live in a place where clean water flows and where plants and animals thrive in a balanced way,” says Dorr. “My work reflects the timeless influence of what I envision through my life and through other cultures that have lived on the land with the natural ways of time.”
Dorr sold her work on Madison Avenue in New York City for 20 years, and in Italy before moving away from the wholesale market. Now she successfully features her pieces at juried retail craft shows all over the Northeast. Her outerwear and accessories are also available online at RustyDorr.com and at her studio in the Catskills, by appointment only.