The Rapidian

Mercy Leather brands unique process, style in genuine leather goods

Rusty Zylstra balances customer and craft, creating individualized canvas bags, wallets, accessories and more on site at his studio.

Keep up to date or visit Mercy Leather's studio

Check out the Mercy Leather website or Facebook page for updates about products and what to expect. 

Mercy Leather is located at

1111 Godfrey

Box 13C

Suite N290

Grand Rapids, Michigan 49503

Rusty Zylstra

Rusty Zylstra /Owen Fiefield

Mercy Leather features wallets, aprons, totes, canvas travel packs, courier messenger bags and bicycle accessories and has even moved into clothing items such as raw denim jeans and jackets.

Jordan Sherwin and Rusty Zylstra's wife Kaitlin Zylstra are the only two assistants in the shop with Mercy Leather. Everything Mercy Leather produces is created right in their studio. With their artistry, Mercy Leather ensures they will never outsource their production of goods.

Zylstra began making his leather creations four years ago out of necessity for himself. He says products were available, but with a lack of funds to spend on the right product or even finding the right product at all, he decided to make them himself.

“Honestly, something as simple as a belt. You can’t even find a good one in the store and most of the time it is layered leather and cardboard on the inside and a thin layer of leather on the outside to make you think its genuine,” says Zylstra.

Zylstra recognized the need for genuine leather goods and began his craft with Mercy Leather.

“I’m going to be doing what we’re doing here whether or not I have the business. I know that doesn’t make sense to a lot of people because it’s like, ‘well if you don’t have the work, how are you going to do it.’ It’s not in my mindset: there is no other option for me other than doing this. I will go to great lengths in order to do this for the rest of my life,” says Zylstra.  

Mercy Leather has its roots in Grand Rapids, and has built and maintained relationships in different parts of the country and Canada where shops and individuals have sought out his products.

“I have blood, sweat and tears of the past four to five years of trying to get better at my craft. Somehow I’ve managed to keep doing it and I haven’t had a job since 2009, other than this,” says Zylstra.

As Mercy Leather gathers a following, the question of out growing their space is always lingering.

“What if I wake up in the morning and there are 300 sales on my website? I don’t know what I would do. I know what other people do. They find someone else to make it for them. That is hard for me because then I will just be like everyone else,” says Zylstra.

Mercy Leather is one of several local artisan goods companies such as Teamwork Bags, whose company hosts a different style and approach to their product. Zylstra says Mercy Leather's organic process, accompanied with a strong passion for working with leather, sets them apart in what others may see as competition.

“Teamwork is a great company. I love their bags. They have a much different style. I think if there is enough business for every company to be busy, then I don’t think there will be competition,” he says.

Zylstra says looking at his products online doesn’t provide a true feel for what is offered. He encourages people to visit the studio.

“It’s not one of those things where people just walk into a shop and buy something. They really think about it before they buy it,” he says. “I don’t think people fully understand our products until they actually have it in their hands. I don’t think people actually think that I make it, even though many people know that I do. It is a weird concept, you know what I mean?”

Zylstra gets 85-90 percent of his materials from the United States. He receives 100 percent cotton wax canvas in six to seven different colors, purchased from Fairfield Textiles of New Jersey, where the material is also milled. His leather comes from the U.S. from places such Horween Leather and other Italian tanneries. Mercy Leather also receives much leather from a local furniture company, gaining large pieces deemed “defective” that the company is unable to use.  

“To start I usually cut out my pattern. I just got a new cutting table so I will be able to cut 20 bags out at once instead of one at a time,” says Zylstra.

Mercy Leather began a relationship with The Great Zace Myers Overall Company out of Ohio, who is aiding in the creation of jeans and jackets.

“[He is] an organic vegetable farmer and overalls maker. He makes his overalls on his farm and has a staff. I have hired him and I go down there once a month and help him with orders,” says Zylstra.

Mercy Leather developed a relationship with Experience Grand Rapids a year ago through CEO, Doug Smalls. Smalls saw Mercy Leather’s work at Madcap coffee, sought him out and hired him to design custom bags for his clients working to bring those traveling to Grand Rapids.

“They had them all here in September and they all came down to the shop and pick out their colors for their messenger bag,” says Zylstra. “It is really interesting the people you meet and [they] find you through other things. I wouldn’t have been found by Doug Small if I hadn’t had my bags down at Madcap.”

As a cyclist and motorcycle rider, Zylstra saw the need for usable necessities, so he created tool rolls for each bike style. For the cyclist, Mercy offers frame covers as protection and as guidance for perfecting a track stand, which is a maneuver cyclists can use while waiting at a stoplight or intersection.

The name Mercy Leather stems from Zylstra’s life experiences and the time it has taken and will continue to take to keep perfecting his craft.

“With Mercy, it is what I need every day to love others and to truly make a good product is kind of the process of slowing down and stepping back and realizing that you can’t rush through life. I’m trying to make the best product each time I do it, not just making it just a process or whatever," says Zylstra. "It is mercy and it is what I have received from many people in my life and it is what I want to show other people.”

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