EASTHAM — Teodora Ficca’s studio and shop are one and the same space. Her leatherworking tools hang on pegs across the window behind her workbench. “I need to organize,” she says, pushing aside strips of leather and stacking up sketches of a client’s custom leather jacket spread out next to her cash register.
She uncovers a pair of scissors (“my good scissors,” she notes) on the way to showing off a half-finished leather bag that’s covering her chunky calculator. “I’ve got to add fringe,” she says. Then she moves on, busily leading the way through her shop, where leather items hang against the walls and on hooks from the ceiling and are stacked high on a multitude of wooden shelves and racks.
At Four Winds Leather in North Eastham, Ficca punches, sews, and adorns leather jackets, hats, satchels, wallets, pouches, belts, even suede bikinis. But her speciality is ceremonial clothing: traditional deerskin garments worn by Mashpee Wampanoag tribe members at powwows and during other cultural practices.
Ficca sources her deerskins from Utah. For the Wampanoag clothing, especially, she’s looking for quality hides: “No holes, no scars.” In a corner of the shop, she brushes her hand over the soft leather of a Wampanoag dress. It’s an elegant one-piece garment with one wide shoulder strap, a V-shaped row of fringe on the chest, and a thickly fringed hem.
Construction takes a long time. “To make this dress, it’s three weeks,” she says. “I cut by hand,” she adds as she rustles a bundle of paper cutouts hanging on the back of a door: patterns to follow with her scissors.
The Wampanoag garments are custom made. “I have a system now,” she says. “I measure the hide, then measure the person.” She uses a heavy-duty sewing machine built specifically for stitching leather.
There are tools for slicing the leather, holding it flat against the table, and punching it. The impressions of hundreds of punched holes decorate the table like an intricate tattoo. Through holes in the hide, she weaves thin strips of leather and makes braided edges or fringes.
Originally from the Philippines, Ficca went to school there for tailoring and dressmaking. She met her late husband, Thomas Ficca, there, too, an Italian American from Connecticut, where the two settled after he left the service. “He made sandals and belts,” she says. “Hippie-style.”
He also had a close relationship with members of the Schaghticoke Indian tribe. “They honored him,” she says. “They gave him a name: Medicine Bear.” Those friendships sparked her interest in sewing tribal garments, and she began making deerskin dresses, leggings, and shirts.
In 1997, the two bought their shop in Eastham. Ficca made leather items and her husband did the bookkeeping and ordered materials. Thomas died in 2017. Now Ficca is both maker and shopkeeper. She’s open seven days a week, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. “But I’m there 24/7,” she says. “When I wake up in the morning, I already have in my head what I’m going to make that day.”
Ficca makes clothing for people from a number of different tribes. Maria Turner, whose ethnic background is Natick Nipmuc, has been a customer for years. She says she appreciates Ficca’s attention to detail and the way she will sew up the sides of a dress by hand, weaving a leather cord through punched holes. “It’s more traditional,” she says. “The way it would have been done.”
For three weeks of work resulting in a single two-toned Wampanoag dress, Ficca charges $1,200 to $1,500. Some less complicated pieces sell for $1,000. “I explain, if you want fancy, you’re going to pay more,” she says. One “fancy” dress includes a short-fringed cape that drapes over the shoulders. The body of the dress is cream-colored, and the fringe is a warm walnut brown. Beside the dress, there’s a deerskin shirt decorated with thin leather tassels. The tassels end with small, simple arrangements of polished beads. “This one is rosewood,” she says. “This is buffalo horn.”
In another corner of the shop, she pulls out a thick wrap-belt and tries it on. She’s sewn onto it a colorful pattern made with hundreds of tiny beads: blue, white, orange, red, and yellow.
It’s difficult to run a business on her own, she says. Ficca’s Wampanoag customers, the ones she’s been sewing for since 1997, sustain her. “They’re like sisters,” she says. “They knew my husband, but they like me better.” She says she sometimes offers them discounted prices if they need them. She keeps going for them, she says, and because she loves the craft. She’s at her worktable before the shop opens and after it closes. “I don’t give up,” she says.