Until a century ago, many Australians worked on horseback, often in the cattle and horse-drawn transport industries. Those activities generated their own specialised leather artisans, such as saddlers and harness-makers.
As a result of the strength and fineness of kangaroo hide, one particular leather-based skill evolved to a uniquely sophisticated level in Australia: whipmaking.
The stock whip, a two to three metre long finely plaited leather construction attached to a half metre cane handle, is still used by stockmen. Many whips are also used in whip cracking displays or as prestigious gifts.
Maurice Doohan of Casino, New South Wales has been making whips since the mid 1960s, initially as a hobby, then becoming one of Australia’s few full time whipmakers. He made both the ornate decorative kangaroo hide whips comprised of up to 36 interwoven strands as well as the more basic white hide (cowhide) whips used in stockyards on a daily basis. In a busy year, Maurice would make up to one thousand whips.
Of the stockwhip’s five parts—the stock, the keeper, to the thong or main length of the whip, the fall and the cracker at the tip—it is the thong which entails the most work. A tapering spiral of finely plaited leather several metres in length, the thong requires excellent choice and preparation of the hide and even, tensioned weaving of the many strands, to come together in a sinuous and highly functional form.
For many of Australia’s several hundred whipmakers, their pastime is a challenging and pleasurable hobby. Many have worked in the cattle industry and a strong community has grown up around the Australian Plaiters and Whipmakers Association
The APWA was started in the 1970s by artist Ron Edwards when he realized that the “old timers” secrets were being lost as they passed away. Maurice says that the Association has successfully propagated the knowledge of the whipmaking craft.
As a result, the quality and skill level of the work by many APWA members is unparalleled in its sophistication and complexity. The trade continues to grow in Australia and elsewhere. The best museums are the Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame, Longreach, Queensland and Cobb and Co Museum, Toowoomba, Queensland.