Mama’s got a brand new bag–and a new friend

The Haynes Mattress Factory, built in 1906. Sealy, Texas.

I don’t usually drive an hour to pick up a new handbag, but something about Stash was different.

Stash is the moniker of Cheryl Schulke’s Sealy, Texas-based bag company; so named after the nickname her father gave her when he discovered her penchant for creative storage. I’d seen Cheryl’s work at my friend Monica’s new restaurant, Sparrow, and within a few days, came across a profile of her in Houston Magazine. So when I went online to buy one of the gorgeous bags she’s been making by hand for only about five years, I sent her a note regarding the shipping: May I pick it up instead?

Cheryl met me at the back door of the hundred-year-old former mattress factory that has been in her family since the 1950s. I knew instantly that I’d been right to follow my instincts to Sealy; walking through the factory, Cheryl told me the parallel stories of her grandparents and their mattress-making, and the origins of her own creative enterprise. The machinery she uses, some of which her husband built, sits alongside the old equipment that was used to form, stuff, and sew mattresses. As she talked, she evoked the long-ago setting, the Texas heat blowing through the windows as her grandfather and his employees handmade 32 mattresses a day, the inventions that made their efforts more efficient. The history was fascinating, but more so was the way she told it—and I knew then that there was more to her story.

Cheryl and an original Haynes mattress.

I should’ve known she was a writer; she sees the world the way a poet does, observant of the beauty and mystery in even the smallest things. She was an English major, and for a while, a teacher with Writers In The Schools. I discovered that up until her thirties, she pursued story via the written word. But then she put down the pen and picked up a camera, and for a while her voice was visual. The turn to design was unintentional; she sewed herself a bag out of a bartered cow hide, and by the end of the first day she carried it in public, she’d sold it and taken orders for more.

Her carryalls and accessories are all made by hand—mostly her own—using vintage bootmaking equipment and hand tools. They’re distinctive and incredibly well made. But even as Stash Co is enjoying a swell of word-of-mouth awareness, she doesn’t think bag-making is her end goal. Her interests—and talents—span an impressive range. She doesn’t see them as a series of monogamous relationships, however; now in her forties, she’s finding ways to bring them all together.

Textile collection and vintage sewing machine.

“I believe the work I do with my hands now is imbued with story. Each bag has a unique story. Each material. The struggles of really investing oneself fully into an enterprise that many people, in the beginning and even today, find unusual. And working within this place, the history is cultivating in my consciousness and my products. The plight of starting a new enterprise that had never been done in this place before. Building a spun-cotton mattress in the late 1800s. Building leather goods in the 2000s,” she says.

With Stash Co, she’s creating more than just bags in the old mattress factory; she’s creating a modern history that involves people and creativity, design and lyricism, imagination and production. She foresees collaborative efforts to extend the brand and create new opportunities for herself and others. After talking for more than an hour, she and I decided that we would find a project to work on together.  Someday, she hopes to return full circle to writing, but for now, she says, “I’m just trying to capture the adventure.”

Whenever she decides to put her story down on paper, I know it will be as beautiful as the rest of her work. When it’s ready, I’ll want to be one of the first to read it. In fact, I’ll probably even drive to the mattress factory to pick it up in person.

Cheryl, me, and my new market bag in Dutch canvas.