Felicia Wheeler and her Wadmalaw Wild Ties
By Ford Walpole
When you visit Felicia Wheeler at the Wadmalaw Island home she shares with Brian O’Neil, you are immediately struck by the inspirational setting for the myriad of creative products Wadmalaw Wild Ties offers. Her workshop, or she-shed, as Felicia affectionately calls the small structure, commands a view beneath Spanish moss-laden live oaks towards the dock that spans the saltmarsh to the creek.
Felica’s very birth is a tale of Lowcountry pride. Both of her parents hailed from Charleston but were living in Savannah. Thus, her determined and expectant mother drove herself to Roper Hospital to ensure that her daughter would be born in the Holy City.
Felicia grew up in Savannah, Hilton Head and rural Georgia. The great outdoors has always been ingrained in her vision. She was given her first horse when she was only 10 years old, and from its saddle, she explored and appreciated the natural world around her. “That’s where I got my love of leather — from the horse world,” she notes. “I only choose good leather for all of my products.”
Felicia’s expansive resume includes careers at Blackbaud, as a stay-at-home mother and working in real estate, marketing and photography. “I have always been artistic and crafty,” she reflects. “In my 30s, I helped my stepfather build the furniture for their Lake Santeetlah house. If I can see it,” she declares, “I will figure out a way to make it for you!”
She recalls the 2014 origin of Wadmalaw Wild Ties. Felicia wanted a trophy bow tie to immortalize the first turkey that her teenage daughter Hannah harvested. “Hannah and Brian had spent hours upon hours hunting in the woods. While they were hunting, they even saw a baby owl and took video selfies to record their outdoor adventures.”
This creative venture proved to be therapeutic amid an unimaginably difficult time in Felicia’s life. “One week after Hannah bagged her first turkey, my older daughter Madison passed away in a fatal car wreck. I needed something constructive to do to take my mind off the tragedy, so I made my first tie,” she tells us. “Then, it just became its own beast!”
As for the name Wadmalaw Wild Ties, Felicia explains: “I wanted the name to include Wadmalaw since that’s where we live, and everything is made by hand on the island. In the beginning, all I made were ties. ‘Wild’ also needed to be part of the name, since everything is made from, and celebrates wildlife!
“The ties evolved into jewelry,” she continues. “I started with leather from a bridle broken by my horse, Cowboy.” Cowboy, who performed English jumping and was a Western trail pony, “loved bourbon and would drink out of Brian’s glass.” The steed’s name is stamped on a silver plaque on a bridle leather bracelet secured by a magnetic, locking clasp. Modeling the unique bracelet, Felicia furthers her courageous and enduring theme of discovering creativity amid loss: “Cowboy was put down exactly two years to the day after Madison’s accident, a very hard day. We had a ‘fire sale’ of all my merchandise. Support from the local horse community was great, and that sale helped get my name out, as well,” she says.
“I have made a lot of jewelry from antlers, leather and big-knotted pearls, as well as stones and gemstones with special meaning. I call one particular collection the Righteous Gemstones collection,” Felicia laughs, referring to the television show, scenes of which were filmed nearby. One of her really fun projects involves turkey and ostrich feathers. Earrings and necklaces feature an ostrich feather held in a previously fired 9mm brass casing with a pearl. “The feathers look great when they catch the breeze!”
Wadmalaw Wild Ties is also known for durable, hand-crafted belts, as well as other hand-stitched leather goods. All belts have a roller buckle, which protects the leather from unnecessary wear. They come with two removable keepers; one sports a shotgun shell head, and the other displays your initials, while the Wadmalaw Wild Ties logo is stamped on the belt in between.
Felicia details the process of leatherworking: “It is hand-cut and has to be finished through several steps. I skive the edges, and sand it all the way up and down. Then, I run burnishing gum up and down every edge. I use a piece of waxed cotton and rub it all over the leather. I then take a wooden burnisher and add more burnishing gum. The friction and heat between the gum and the wood smoothes the edges and causes them to shine. The leather is treated with a saddle conditioner from The Island Tack Shack. It’s a painstaking process!”
Felicia designed a redfish stamp, a popular trademark for her products. She recently made a matching redfish wallet and belt. For the wallet, she worked with a much thinner sheet of leather. The inner pockets are made from shaved down bridle leather, elk hide and alligator skin.
These days, Felicia spends most of her time crafting purses. “My most popular purse is the wedge purse. I make them out of deer hide and soft elk hide — either dyed or naturally colored. She cuts the leather by hand, punches the thread holes and hand-stitches the purse. “I also try not to be wasteful. So, the end result of cutting large cowhide for purses allows me to make small purses with natural, live edges from the leftover hide.”
She describes the practicality of her wedge purse: “You can throw it over your shoulder, and because of the length, you can easily reach your wallet on the inside. It has two pockets in front because of the fold. It also has a place to hold your phone and glasses,” she says.
“My personal, original purse, which I use every day is my favorite. See how the leather naturally ages so beautifully? I made this purse from the hide of a Wadmalaw doe.” Felicia tells us. “The inner pockets have a hole from the slug from my single-shot Harrington & Richardson 20-gauge shotgun.
“I recently made a leather sling for the gun, along with a shell holder that fits on the butt, which is a lot better than carrying the shells in my pocket!” Two years ago, with this rudimentary firearm, Felcia bagged a trophy eleven-point, 240-pound buck at 80 yards near Batchtown, Ill., where Brian has been bowhunting and guiding for the past quarter century.
Felicia enjoys making original projects for friends and family. She transformed a friend’s sentimental boots by salvaging significant pieces of the leather to stitch a tote bag. She designed a personalized bow hunter stamp for Brian’s accessories, such as a chest holster, belts and a leather koozie. And she plans to upcycle an old saddle to make future products; this task will be a challenge because the leather is so thick and will need to be thinned down with a skiver.
Felicia and Brian’s outdoor lifestyle complements and reflects everything she does with Wadmalaw Wild Ties. Cordray’s Processing tans the hides of the animals she and Brian harvest. Because everything is handmade, each product is unique. For example, she contrasts the thin hides of local deer to the thick hides of Illinois whitetails. And her charming she-shed is not limited to her own work. “I collect artwork from other artists who inspire me!” she says.
“I enjoy being left alone in my shop and having the whole day and night to work,” Felicia explains. “I crank up Chris Stapleton, stay in one frame of mind, and let the creative juices flow. Once I pull something out, it’s everywhere, and I don’t go back until I finish. I took this old desk with me to Illinois on a hunting trip, and while there, I worked on a hide and wallets and purses.
“Everything I make has an outdoorsy flair. You can wear it with black tie or blue jeans!” she declares. Felicia displays her wares at the Kiawah Island Market at Mingo Point on Monday nights during the summer; this past Black Friday was the last one of the season. On December 3, she will be set up at Deepwater Vineyard on Wadmalaw. Felicia is a founding member of the Wadmalaw Makers Mart, which is held at the vineyard, as well as at other locations around the island. In addition, she attends wildlife banquets of the National Turkey Federation and National Deer Association. To see Felicia Wheeler’s amazing products, check out Wadmalaw Wild Ties on Facebook and Instagram.
Ford Walpole lives and writes on John’s Island and is the author of many articles on the outdoors. He teaches English at James Island Charter High School and the College of Charleston and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.