A lot goes into a handmade leather bag. Things you wouldn’t necessarily see at a glance: a carefully cut beveled edge, say, or the way each piece of leather is chosen from a precise part of the hide to suit its ultimate purpose. But for Cameron Paterson and Joram Salisbury, those almost-invisible details are the whole point.
“We spend a lot of time figuring out things like the proportions, down to the 0.25mm,” Joram says. “You may look at a bag and think, ‘Oh yeah, that might not be too complicated,’ or ‘I don’t know how much work has gone into that.’ But we spend a lot of time getting all the tiny little details right — and together, all those little details make the whole look so much grander.”
The two designers, former coworkers (and surfing buddies), made their first foray into handmade leather goods six years ago with Patebury, a line of kangaroo-leather toe straps for ’80s-style steel frame bicycles. From there, it wasn’t much of a leap to bags and wallets, which they launched under the name Paterson Salisbury in 2015.
In just two years, their brand has earned a loyal fan base and grown from a side gig to a full-time job. And their bags, just like their business plan, are designed for the long haul. “We just want to build products that will last a really long time,” Joram says. “If you think about the Australian landscape or the Australian way of life, which is quite a harsh way of living, for anything to survive it needs to be robust. We take that idea and put it into our bag designs — they’re delicate, but they can take a beating.”
Read on to see what’s next for these self-taught leather craftsmen and shop the collection.
What drew you two to working with leather in the first place? How did that conversation start?
Cameron: It started with us cycling to work on old steel-frame bicycles and wanting to make some toe straps, which is the strap that holds your foot onto the pedal. We rented a workshop in an old foundry in Sydney for about six months and just played around with leather and pulled apart bicycles, trying to get an understanding of how it all worked. Then we started visiting our local tannery down in Botany, in Sydney — that’s when we were first exposed to all of that.
We started selling that product and building our reputation, mainly in Europe and in the States, in this really niche market: toe straps made out of kangaroo leather for classic ’80s steel bicycles. That was our big point, because it’s such a strong material for its weight, and that appeals really well to the cycling community.
Joram: We didn’t really have a conscious moment where we were like, “Oh, we want to get into leather.” It was more that we were curious about bicycle components, and that we were both young and wanted to be more creative than we could be at our current jobs. We wanted to do something design-oriented and just play around with something — it was all born out of that.
When did you transition from making toe straps to bags? Where did that idea come from?
Joram: I guess it started when my girlfriend was planning to buy a bag online and was going to spend quite a lot of money on it. I looked at the bag she was going to purchase and thought, “Maybe I could make that cheaper for her.” It turns out that was optimistic thinking.
Still, we made some bags as presents for family members and my then-girlfriend, and we got a good response from those so we started to refine those designs a little bit and slowly build a collection. We began going to the local markets and getting people’s feedback and opinions on our products, seeing how they would do in the marketplace.
When did Etsy enter the picture for you guys, and how did that affect your work or your business?
Joram: I think we probably should have entered the business earlier on. It was just an experiment. We’d been told a few times, “Oh, maybe you should try your stuff on Etsy.” We weren’t all that familiar with it, but we thought, “Oh, it’s very popular, especially in America, so why not just try and open ourselves up to a larger market and see how we go on a global scale?” It’s great that so many people can see your work, and you can be so small at the same time.
It’s clear that you put a lot of work and care into your products. About how long does it take to make one of your bags from start to finish? Or do you make the bags in batches?
Joram: We do small runs of about five or six bags at a time. We’ve arrived at that number because you don’t get too tired or sore doing one particular task, and it also keeps you from getting into a volume mindset, where you might put less care into each individual bag. If you’ve just got a small group of bags, you still have that attention to detail and that focus for every little task you’re doing.
So how long does it take to make one small run of bags?
Joram: We try to average the time spent for each bag so we have a clear understanding of how we’re going. For a large tote, it’s 10 hours; if you’re doing a run of five that would be 50 hours, and that 50 hours is distributed between Cameron and I. We share different parts of the process and have learned to specialise in certain areas to make it faster. I do all the leather cutting and selection, and Cameron does a lot of the edging; I also do the 3-D construction. The straps are a whole different process, and once they’re made Cameron hand-stitches them onto the panels.
Cameron: With a large tote, just to stitch on one side of each strap to one panel is about half an hour. So you’re looking at nearly two hours just for hand stitching. But that’s a crucial step, because it’s extremely strong with that saddle stitching. It’s a lot stronger than sewing machine-stitched, and it looks a lot better too. Anything that is going to be pulled or stretched, we always make sure to hand stitch it, because we want it to last a long time.
What are some aspects of your products or your process that set them apart from other leather goods on the market?
Joram: First, I would say materials. We use the two leathers: The black leather comes from Queensland, and the whiskey-colored leather comes from New Zealand, and they’ve been specifically selected because they work really well with our bags. It’s very rich leather, and we take a lot of care to select the right panels that don’t have markings and are going to perform well.
Sometimes I spend a couple of days just selecting the leather, first from the tannery and then bringing it back to the workshop. It’s an exhausting task, going through and cutting panels and populating your hides in order to get the best panel available. We really try to showcase the leather itself — we use big pieces of leather and we try to have a continuous gusset, without a lot of stitching and other things clouding the impact of the leather.
Cameron: The edging is important too. We tend to use quite thick leather compared to some other makers that might use thinner leather and back it, and then roll or turn the edge. We have an exposed edge; that gets cut along both sides with an edge beveler, treated with three coats of edge finish paint, cauterised and rounded with special heating irons, finished with a beeswax coating and burnished with a rotary tool. That’s quite a time-intensive part of our process, and I think it’s what differentiates us, because we put so much care into our edges so the bags will look good and stay looking good for a long time.
The other big thing is the hand stitching. It’s so quick to bang things out on a sewing machine, but especially for the straps, they really should be hand-stitched because they take so much load and get knocked around a lot. When we look at other bags — or even on other wallets — the first thing that always comes undone is the machine backstitch.
What’s your best advice for taking care of leather goods and making them last?
Joram: We’re lucky to use what’s called an aniline leather, which has self-healing properties. It’s quite an oily leather, so if it does get marked, you can rub it with the palm of your hand or get a simple horsehair brush and buff out a lot of those marks. I think that makes our leather unique as well; a lot of other leathers in production are actually sanded smooth and then painted. Once you scratch that paint off some way, you can never really get the colour or the paint back; the colour underneath will always look different. That’s why we use the leather we do, even though it’s more expensive: It likes contact — it becomes shinier and smoother just from contact. As you make contact with the leather it brings up the oils to the surface and it kind of buffs itself.
So basically, you don’t have to do anything.
Joram: Yeah, you really don’t have to do much. We say that if people are more comfortable, they can put a light conditioner on it. But the best thing is just to use a simple, soft horsehair shoe brush that costs about $10 from the supermarket and give it a bit of a buff now and then. And if you really want to go all out, you can melt down a cloth that has some beeswax in it, which is completely natural and anti-bacterial and waterproofs things to a point as well, and then add some lavender oil, maybe a little bit of lemon oil, and re-buff it. But I’m not sure anyone is going to go to that length.
What’s coming next for Paterson Salisbury?
Cameron: We have two new products that we plan to launch this year: a small zip purse with a kangaroo-leather lining and a beautiful brass Italian zip, and an old favourite, which is the essentials bag. It’s like a little saddle bag to hold your wallet and keys and things; it looks almost like a small shoulder bag.
Even at this stage in leather working, when we’ve been tinkering with our leather craft for six years and two years on the bags, I still feel like we’re only just opening the door to the possibilities. There’s so much more to learn. I think we’re most excited about learning what we can do with different tools and new techniques.
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All photographs courtesy of Paterson Salisbury.