Cowgirl Gearmakers

Talented craftswomen take on a male-dominated industry.

In the Old West, women often were looked upon as second-class citizens, their options for the future severely limited at best. So it's no surprise they've been slow to make inroads in the world of gearmaking – a profession in which Old West traditions are still practiced on a daily basis.

But gearmaking isn't just for cowboys anymore. Through the last 20 years, the field has opened its doors to women. Many of these gearmakers have taken up the industry as a hobby, or in an attempt to create the type of gear they couldn't afford to buy. Only after several years of learning the intricate processes involved in rawhide-braiding, saddlemaking and the like have they turned their hobbies into full-time careers.

Not that such an evolutionary process makes them any different from their male counterparts. After all, there's little in the way of formal training or education in such fields – meaning everyone must take a trial-and-error approach. It takes years for gearmakers to develop a deep understanding of the intricacies involved in their chosen careers. The one advantage an aspiring gearmaker has is the willingness of others to share information.

"Everybody I've met has been more than generous about sharing what they know with me and encouraging me," says braider Sharon Paulin. "Nobody ever turned me away just because I was a woman."

Fellow braider Cindy Beaver considered learning the process as a way to help preserve Old West history in a modern age. Working in the industry, she noticed the women's progress, which led her to find a way to showcase these great gearmakers.

A regular at the Western Folklife Center's Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, Beaver first discussed the idea of an all-women's gear show with center representatives. A few months later, her dream became a reality as she helped WFC Curator Meg Glaser organize the show.

"A lot of people out there still think women can't do these types of things," Beaver said. "I just wanted to bring a bunch of us together and let people see for themselves the quality of the work that we women are doing."

The 2002 show was an overall hit according to Glaser. "I think people were amazed at all the women there and the types of things they were doing. The most amazing part to me is that the show was really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to women gearmakers."

Much the same as male craftsmen, female gearmakers come to the industry from varied backgrounds and for many different reasons. Here's a look at five prominent women making names for themselves in what has traditionally been a male-dominated industry.

Read the complete story in the May issue of Western Horseman.