The bandana, the equalizer of fashion, defies stereotypes.
Bandanas have never been drafted into the culture wars. No one questions them, accuses them or suspects them. Bandanas have been worn by gangsters and bandits and still aren’t threatening. Roy Rogers and Dale Evans accessorized freely with bandanas, but no one ever assigned purity to their neck coverings. They just look amazing, is all.
Essentially, we haven’t invested a lot of mental capacity in bandanas. In fact, the time it took to read the first paragraph of this article could be the most time you’ve ever spent thinking about them. The bandana and its storied past are regularly overlooked. Let’s change that.
Amy Sheets, an Amarillo-born fashion designer who now makes her home in New York City, is asking the public to consider the lowly bandana—arrayed in the splendor of Solomon—as a trendy way to dress up any outfit while celebrating our Western heritage. These aren’t just any dollar-store accessories. The intricate designs for Sheets’ bandana collection were created by the elderly Amarillo cowboy and renowned saddle maker, Bob Marrs. He just so happened to be her grandfather.
The idea for this authentic cowboy high fashion began in 2017, when Sheets launched a line of bandanas under the brand Marrs Makers at a bit-and-spur show. The designs were her interpretation of Marrs’ saddle work, but applied to cloth. The intricate, vegetal patterns, imported from the Middle East, also spoke the language of Texas cowboy. As has been the case with so many creative ventures of late, it took a pandemic to bring this garden to full bloom.
In March 2020, at the age of 93, Marrs was still working with leather. Age had slowed him down considerably. Sheets and her husband were visiting the Panhandle the week COVID turned the world upside down, and barely made it out of Amarillo. As the year dragged on, Marrs’ movements became even more limited. His work slowed and his spirits began to sag.
“If he wasn’t working on something, he got really down, even though he was generally a positive person,” Sheets says. “We were thinking what would be a way for Grandpa to continue working on what he loves during quarantine and not get discouraged, a way to still draw and design his artwork when he did not feel up to making spur leathers. The answer was a new bandana totally about him.”
Not just about Marrs, but designed by Marrs himself.
Although Sheets and her grandfather were separated by 1,700 miles, they launched a unique, multigenerational collaboration over the phone, through the U.S. Mail and visits to Amarillo—unsure where it would take them. Upon Marrs’ passing in February 2022, just two days shy of his 95th birthday, an effort that began as a way to keep her grandfather’s spirits up found new purpose. It became a means to perpetuate the art and genius of the legendary saddle maker, this time on the canvas of a bandana.
A Lifetime of Service
Growing up in far northeastern Oklahoma, Marrs likely never envisioned he’d be designing fashion accessories in his old age. Cowboying was all he knew, working on ranches near his hometown of Delaware, Oklahoma, and later as far away as California. After his service in World War II, Marrs married Betty Lucas and the young couple started life together on the famed Waggoner Ranch near Vernon. It was here he started working with leather, and in 1951 the couple moved to Amarillo, where he got work with Stockman’s Boot and Saddle Shop. He and Betty eventually purchased the shop, renaming it Bob Marrs Stockman’s Saddle Shop.
In the coming decades, Marrs earned a wide reputation for beautiful, top-quality saddles that were popular with working cowboys and cowgirls. He was recognized across the Southwest for his craftsmanship, earning accolades from the Academy of Western Artists in Fort Worth and the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. But as much as anything, it was the service Bob and Betty provided that made a Marrs saddle so valuable. The couple were a team and the shop was their life.
At one point Sheets remembers that her grandparents, in the early days, lived in the shop, which was located across from the Western Stockyards in east Amarillo. And because of the shop’s proximity to the stockyards, Bob and Betty were indispensable to the cowboys who worked there.
“They’d get a call before daybreak from a cowboy doing his job at the stockyards for an emergency repair or to replace some tack,” Sheets says. “The cowboys would call him because they needed that equipment and my grandparents saw it as a service to the community.”
From Persia to West Texas
For Sheets, the bandana project is highly personal. It’s important to her that West Texas traditions are reflected strongly in the bandana designs.
“One of his great talents was being able to apply his creativity and craftsmanship to make something that was pleasing in form but also practical,” she says. “That was the hallmark of his work as a saddle maker, making something comfortable for both the horse as well as the rider.”
Drawing on his years of saddle making, Marrs created intricate oak leaf and floral patterns that are strikingly similar to the flowing, plantlike aesthetic of the traditional bandana, which is no coincidence. Bandanas and Western saddles are not only visual records of the American West, but also tell a story of global trade patterns—and world conflict—that enriched Western design.
It may be surprising to some that Islam influenced the traditional bandana design. When the Moors invaded Spain in 711 A.D., they brought a holy aesthetic with them—intricately flowing vegetal design motifs, cleansed of the idolatry of graven images of humans and animals. The conquered adopted many of these tastes, and long after the Moors were driven out, the Spanish were imitating this style in art and architecture. They also imitated it in saddle design.
Spanish saddles made their way to Mexico, then to Texas by way of the cattle trade. The bandana bears these imprints of long-ago cultural exchanges as well. The word bandana is thought to have come from either the Hindi or Urdu languages and refers to a tied cloth. The familiar paisley patterns of a traditional bandana originated in Persia, where the khil’at shawl, often decorated in paisley, was a gift bestowed by royalty as a robe of honor. As trade increased between Europe and the Middle East in the 17th century, these Persian shawls were so desired that European textile manufacturers began producing knockoffs of their own, most notably in Paisley, Scotland.
The defining characteristic of paisley is the fluid teardrop shape the Persians called the buto, or flower. Sheets started the bandana design process with Marrs by copying butos and hollowing them out. They then arranged the hollow shapes in symmetrical patterns and sent Marrs stacks of the designs with directions to fill the voids inside the shapes, drawing on his artistic instincts—well-honed from years of hand-tooling saddles—to know what looked right and how something should be worn.
The design concept behind the first bandana in the collection, named the “Poinsettia-Paisley,” demonstrates Marrs’ knack for blending his unique artistry within a widely-known and useful product.
Once he completed his work, Marrs would send the renderings through the mail to New York, where Sheets adapted the designs in ways rarely applied to bandanas. This long-distance collaboration was neither fast nor simple, but in saddle making, something that takes time is going to turn out better. Bob Marrs applied this truth to his bandana design as well.
But time was not something that could be wasted, either. Sheets started the project with her grandfather when he was well into his 90s, and it was vitally important to tap into Marrs’ artistic marrow before time had run its course. Sheets remembers that Marrs worked through the designs quickly and precisely. When she returned to Amarillo in July 2021, she felt comfortable they were getting close to a finish.
Since her grandfather’s passing earlier this year, Sheets has refined the designs and produced prototypes on a tightly woven cotton material using a discharge press that applies the dye to both sides in one pressing. At first glance, the bandanas appear much like a traditional bandana, but the details reveal something special. A Bob Marrs saddle is often distinguishable by its poinsettia motif, another import from Mexico and a design element he began using in 1956 and carried through all his years of leathercraft.
The finished product is as much a work of art as it is an article of clothing, not unlike a Bob Marrs saddle: Both used and useful, it is also beautiful to behold.
“If someone decides they want to frame it, that’s wonderful,” Sheets says. “But our intent—Grandpa and I talked about it—is when people wear something you’ve made, when someone is really experiencing it, it’s doing its job. So we hope people will want to wear it and see it as something special, but not so precious that if you’re sweating bullets or wiping your face with it, it’s not too precious. That is how Bob Marrs made things.”
In the months since Marrs’ passing, Sheets has been spending more time in Amarillo, developing partnerships with local groups and individuals to firmly establish the Bob Marrs bandana as an export of the community that inspired it.
In full production, this bandana is the first to be sold through the Bob Marrs Saddle Shop Collection, which celebrates not only the resourcefulness of the American West but also its own kind of glamor. While it may be possible to purchase the bandana at area retail stores or pop-up events, the bulk of sales are currently online through marrsmakers.com, as well as on Instagram and Facebook—@bobmarrssaddles and @marrsmakers.
Sheets expects the bandanas to sell, not just because of their beauty, but also because her grandfather’s name is on them, a legacy of the artistry he left behind.
“In addition to being a cowboy and saddle maker, he was very much an artist. He was able to see from both perspectives, but it was not in his DNA to make something that didn’t work. He refined it until he felt like it was something he needed it to be,” she says.
In late November 2021, Sheets brought Marrs the latest iteration of the design and asked him what he might change, knowing he was always looking for a way to improve something.
“You know what,” Marrs said, “I think it’s perfect.”