23 October 2023

Harnessing saddler’s legacy with traditional skills

| John Thistleton
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Kate Stewart and Peter Marmont in their workshop

Kate Stewart and her partner Peter Marmont are regularly reminded of saddler Bill Dutaillis as they craft leather into harnesses, stock whips and saddle bags. Photo: John Thistleton.

An intoxicating smell of new leather wafts over a century-old sewing machine, round knife and hole punches still in service in Goulburn today.

Kate Stewart is the machine’s third owner and believes her other saddlers’ tools are probably just as old. Using the sewing machine most days at work, she says it can sew surely through layers of thick leather. The round knife is her main tool. “It feels like an extension of my arm,” she says.

The machine belonged to traditional saddler Bill Dutaillis and before that his father, also named Bill, a saddler who took on his son as a 14-year-old apprentice.

The younger Bill later moved from Sydney to Goulburn and opened in Auburn Street, where he came to earn a reputation for his saddles and other horse tack.

Bill later moved to a second location on the northern end of Auburn Street, next to a Turkish restaurant that was blown up in 1983 in an arson attack. The fearful blast smashed his awning and shattered the shop’s glass.

He moved to Verner Street to see out his days in the trade, and 30 years ago passed on many of his skills to Kate, who trades today under the Dutaillis name.

“I needed to learn more in order to make a success of the shop,” Kate said. “I had tried to find a saddler to do an apprenticeship and couldn’t find one. A lady in the Blue Mountains taught me a bit of re-packing saddles, fine stitching, I still had a lot more to learn,” she said.

Blue Mountains whip maker Peter Clarke taught her how to plait leather and alerted her to Bill’s imminent retirement, suggesting she move to Goulburn and buy the shop. After meeting Kate, Bill delayed his retirement for two years, during which time he taught her how to make harnesses and helped her hone other skills.

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While not formally qualifying as a saddler, Kate has done exceptionally well, as Terry Goodear discovered in 2006. Events manager for R.M. Williams, he had come to the shop on a mutual friend’s recommendation when Kate was making a beautiful maroon patent driving harness for her Clydesdale mare Annie in between other jobs.

As it happened, Terry was in need of a harness for Carlton Brewery’s team of Clydesdales. He was the head teamster. Seeing the elegantly crafted harness out the back of the shop in R.M. Williams corporate maroon patent, Terry’s eyes lit up, and he said:

“This is what I want! Can you make me a tandem set for the Sydney Show this year?”

The show was only weeks away so Kate lent him Annie’s harness for the rear horse and made a new one for the tandem’s lead horse. After that event, she made Terry a matching set of harnesses for a subsequent show. Her craftsmanship did not go unnoticed. She ended up making all the top-of-the-range bridles and breastplates for the legendary bush outfitter for several years.

The third owner of this trusty leather sewing machine, Kate has become skilled with many old tools which belonged to two generations of the Dutaillis family. Photo: John Thistleton.

In her early years establishing her credentials with Bill’s former clients who had become hers, one job didn’t go quite as planned.

Peter Marmont had called, looking for Bill to make saddle bags for his motorbike before setting off for Bribie Island in Queensland.

Kate made them, but during the trip to Queensland and back, a cross strap on the heavily laden saddle bags stretched and he brought them back for Kate to repair them.

“She wouldn’t accept payment, because she said it was her fault,” Peter said. “Well, I said, I’ll take you out for lunch and she said right-o. We have been together for 27 years,” he said.

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Peter became adept at plaiting leather, which led him to one of Kate’s artisan teachers, whip maker Peter Clarke, and regular sessions in the Blue Mountains learning how to make all manner of whips. He has used mostly kangaroo hide ever since, making stock whips, carriage drivers whips and dressage whips, adorning some with silver and brass ornaments.

“There are only a handful of us in Australia doing those driving whips, probably only three of us, maybe two actively and one only if he is asked,” said Peter, who this year was invited to judge a section of whips entered in the Sydney Royal Easter Show.

And so the Dutaillis legacy continues, upholding skills handed down from several generations.

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