Only-in-YEG shopping list: Meet leathermaker Sylvia Soo

When Sylvia Soo was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 25, she found solace in leather-making. She enrolled in an art therapy course while undergoing treatment, but her passion for the craft has extended beyond her health battle.

'Sometimes I have to remind myself, you can't rush the process'

Sylvia Soo is the Edmonton designer behind Sylvia Soo Leather. (YEG People )

Finding the perfect gift can be a struggle.

The malls are packed and trying to navigate online shopping sites can frazzle the most ardent shoppers.

To ease the holiday strain, Radio Active, CBC Edmonton's afternoon show, is bringing you an offering of only-in-Edmonton gifts which are sure to keep you off the naughty list.

The Only-in-YEG shopping list features the people behind the creations you'll find only in Edmonton.

Sylvia Soo Leather

While Sylvia Soo was struggling to recover from complications while battling breast cancer, she found solace in leather-making.

Now her collections have sold the world-over and she's often inundated with orders.

Soo was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer in 2009. Only after months of surgeries and aggressive chemotherapy treatments, did she finally started feeling like herself again.

Her hair had grown back, she felt healthy.

But then, a painful setback: In 2013, Soo suffered complications from breast reconstruction surgery and had to return to hospital.
Soo spends hour painstakingly carving and threading imported leathers into classic handbags, clutches and journals. (Sylvia Soo leather )

It was there her greatest fears were realized, the cancer had come back.

"I don't know how to describe the feeling, because one of your greatest fears when you have cancer is that it will come back. It took me a really long time to get through that and work through that emotionally."

Because Soo had already received the most aggressive form of chemotherapy, radiation was the best option.

Soo was fearful. Her previous treatments had been brutal. Radiation held a new kind of cruelty.

'It was really awful'

"I decided I was going to do it, and just take it one day at a time," Soo said.

"So I went through it, and ended up second-degree radiation burns. My skin was sort of sliding off my body in the shower. It was really awful."

It during these dark days that Soo stumbled across a poster for the art therapy course for cancer survivors.

"I took the class and loved it. It was a bunch of cancer patients or survivors and we just sat there and worked with our hands and we didn't talk about cancer.

"It was great. It was a great relief for me."

While undergoing treatment, she enrolled in an art therapy course, but her passion for the craft has extended well beyond her health battle into a full-time career.

It was in that class that Soo made her first leather-bound journal.

She filled the book with diary entries about her ongoing battle to regain her health. Even now, Soo still keeps the journal close by, safely tucked away in her studio.

In stunning detail, the book is covered with hand-carved designs including a whimsical image of a large cat perched in a chair at a Parisian cafe.

Passion and process 

The playful art on the cover masks the painful notes inside.

"What's in here is quite special," said Soo.

"I did a lot of journaling at that time so that's all in this journal." 

Now years later and cancer-free, Soo has found success in the design world.

She painstakingly creates leather-bound journals, purses and clutches from her cluttered studio in downtown Edmonton.

Her trademark is minimalist designs with neutral tones and clean lines, made with the finest thread and European leather.

It takes patience, but that's part of what she finds so healing about the process.

During those especially stressful days in her studio, Soo makes sure to stop herself and remember just how far she's come.

"I really try to remind myself to embrace and appreciate the process. My goal is to make really beautiful pieces for my clients and take the time that the leather deserves," she said.

"My goal isn't to be a huge leather bag industry, but really remember what brought me to leather.

"Sometimes I have to remind myself, you can't rush the process. Slow down."

You can shop Soo's entire collection online at Sylvia Soo Leather.