Meet Michelle Miller - Rossendale's master saddler
PUBLISHED: 12:58 19 July 2017 | UPDATED: 12:58 19 July 2017
Saddle making is an almost exclusively male occupation but that didn't deter Lancashire's Michelle Miller, writes Mairead Mahon.
Michelle Miller and JK Rowling have one thing in common – they both found it easier to disguise the fact that they were women until they had established themselves in their respective professions. That’s why Michelle Miller, a master saddler and harness maker, only has M. Miller written on the sign outside her picturesque Rossendale workshop at Shawforth, near Rochdale.
‘There aren’t a lot of lady saddlers, let alone master ones, and when I began in the early 80s, there were even fewer,’ she says. ‘I got used to people coming into the workshop and telling me to run along and get the saddler and then looking astonished when I told them that it was me.
‘Most clients gave me a chance but I thought it best not to deter them from even stepping over the threshold by advertising the fact that I was a woman.’
Michelle grew up on the family farm, knowing that she wanted to work with horses. It was her father, an equine judge, who suggested that she thought about training as a saddler but when she mentioned it to her careers teachers at school, their first reaction was to be flummoxed and then to tell her that it just wasn’t a job for a woman. But Michelle was made of sterner stuff and, aged just 16, she left home in 1978 to study leather crafts in London.
‘I was the youngest there and far away from home but I was following my dream and I had the support of my parents, so I completed the four-year course. It has to be said, the first year concentrated on shoes and handbags and I’m not a huge fan of either, although, if necessary I can make a pair to rival Louboutin. I am a Rossendale girl after all!’
Michelle passed the course with flying colours and her dad, who was very proud, converted an old farm building for her to work in. Once people had recovered from the shock of a young woman making and repairing saddles, her reputation began to spread and her skills became so honed that it was suggested that she apply to become a Master Saddler.
‘No one else in the area was a Master Saddler but armed with the confidence of youth, I applied and The Society of Master Saddlers sent someone down to assess me. I had recently passed my driving test but this was a much more unnerving experience,’ says Michelle.
‘I had to demonstrate various techniques and different types of stitching, as well as undertaking tasks such as lining a harness collar, something which is very skilful. Just like the driving test examiner, he remained impassive, giving no indication of his views.’
Four weeks later, the letter arrived bearing the news that this 24-year-old woman had impressed enough to be admitted to the ranks of Master Saddle Makers. It was virtually unheard of.
‘I was delighted and so were my parents. It’s the highest honour that a saddle maker can be given. Sadly, saddle makers who can make bespoke saddles and riding equipment are thin on the ground now. For example, all my tools are heritage ones. Many of them were bought from saddlers who were retiring when I was a girl and goodness knows how long they’d had them for. I’m not keen on new tools at all! If a Victorian saddler walked into my workshop, he’d recognise the tools and know how to use them. I occasionally even make my own thread from waxing linen.’
The equine community values her skills and they come from all over the north west to take advantage of them. ‘People still do want bespoke saddles, although usually it’s for a horse or pony that is just that bit awkward to fit,’ she says.
‘It might be a pony with a round flat back or a horse with quite prominent withers. I usually go out, have a look at the gait of the horse and watch both horse and rider in action because the needs of both have to be taken into account. Then, armed with measurements and specific knowledge, I come back and make the saddle from English leather.
‘A good saddle will last a life time if it is maintained properly and I do carry out MOTs on them. Sometimes adjustment is needed because horses, like humans, can put on unwanted pounds.’
Bespoke saddles can cost between £1,000 and £3,000 but Michelle also sells other reputable brands, new and second hand, and they all come with a good dollop of expert advice.
‘You can’t just pick up a saddle you like the look of. Remember that a horse’s spine is a rigid structure, unlike that of humans. A badly fitting saddle could harm the horse, you or both,’ says Michelle, who will make adjustments to the saddles that she sells.
It’s not just saddles that Michelle makes. She also makes most other things that a horse could need including harnesses, bridles, standing martingale attachments and whips and, like the saddles, these should last for years.
‘Yes, I am seeing pieces come in for some tender loving care that I made decades ago. It can make me feel old when the third generation of a family come in but there is nothing better than talking horse sense, except maybe when I’m stitching in the early morning light,’ says Michelle.
So, now Michelle no longer has anything to prove can we expect to see her full name on the sign?
‘No, things have changed but I’ve been M. Miller for so long now, that is how it’s going to stay,’ she laughs.