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The Young Designer Using Traditional Leather-Working Techniques To Create Accessories Inspired By The Australian Landscape

Studio Visit

Liam Dillon is one maker in one studio crafting all his designs from one material: vegetable tanned kangaroo leather. It sounds niche, but this is the most sustainable leather on the Australian market, made even more environmentally friendly by Liam’s solo artisanal practice, which shuns modern manufacturing processes in favour of traditional leather-working techniques.

The leather craftsman has built his brand, Liam Dillon Designs, around this single substance, crafting unisex accessories like envelope folded backpacks, zipped money pouches and pocket-sized wallets by hand. We visited him at his Brunswick studio (inside the Parigina Footwear shoe factory where he trained!) to learn more about his specialist trade.

12th January, 2021

Leather craftsman Liam Dillon has a workshop in Brunswick, located inside the Parigina Footwear shoe factory where he trained as a student! Here he makes a range of accessories from kangaroo leather, which is a natural by-product of official pest control programs the government conducts annually. Photo – Amelia Stanwix.

Liam uses traditional machinery to craft his accessories, from awls to hammers and an old Pfaff sewing machine. Photo – Amelia Stanwix.

Liam’s workshop has a roller door, which he throws open to let the sun in (and his dog Rosie bask) while he works. Photo – Amelia Stanwix.

Liam employs a range of ancient techniques to while working the leather by hand, from skiving to beveling. Photo – Amelia Stanwix.

Though Liam has extensive training in making footwear, leather accessories offered many more possibilities to experiment with the material. Photo – Pete Ryle and Marsha Golemac. Sculpture by Jo Wilson.

He works with one material only: vegetable tanned kangaroo leather. Sourced from Packers Leather tannery in Queensland, it is the most sustainable genuine leather in Australia. The hide itself is a by-product of annual government culls of pest kangaroo breeds, and then dyed with plat-based tannins derived from natural bark and leaves – making it an entirely native Australian product. Photo – Amelia Stanwix.

‘As with human skin, vegetable-tanned leather naturally ages with time. It can darken, mark and scar with use with use. It changes with you.’ Photo – Amelia Stanwix.

‘I dye and burnish the edges on a smooth circular wheel of wood that, with heat and friction, creates a high shine on the natural leather, with many steps and techniques in between,’ Liam explains. Photo – Amelia Stanwix.

‘I love to collect old beautiful things that inspire me. I have a collection of books about the Australian landscape, industrial lamps, wooden boxes and a gold foil stamp that I use to mark my products,’ Liam says. ‘I am attracted to objects that tell stories and have a unique practical purpose.’ Photo – Amelia Stanwix.

Liam makes zipped pouches, folded wallets and boxy backpacks with envelope flaps. Photo – Amelia Stanwix.

As they are dyed with natural tannins, the leather of each piece reflects the ochre earthiness of the Australian landscape. Photo – Pete Ryle and Marsha Golemac. Sculpture by Jo Wilson.

Some weathered treasures in the workshop. Photo – Amelia Stanwix.

‘Kangaroos are wild animals, so their skin is often scarred or marked. They get in fights, they bound through the harsh Australian bush, they get bitten by insects. I choose to embrace these imperfections in the leather because they tell a story,’ Liam says. Photo – Amelia Stanwix.

Sasha Gattermayr
Tuesday 12th January 2021

‘Vegetable tanning is a completely natural and ancient process that uses the tannins found in leaves and bark to produce a non-toxic and biodegradable material.’ – Liam Dillon

Liam Dillon grew up on a dairy farm in South Gippsland, and trained as a painter straight out of high school. But it wasn’t until years later when he was working at a cafe in London, and made a friend who was training to be a cordwainer (a shoemaker who crafts specifically from leather) that he realised the depth of his own passion for the same material.

‘I was inspired by the ancient skills and techniques my friend spoke about,’ Liam says. He returned to Australia and enrolled in a custom-made footwear course at RMIT, scoring a job at Parigina Footwear in Brunswick (a family business from the ’60s making men’s formal shoes) soon after. Liam did all this with the intention of launching his own his shoe brand, but as time went on, he became more and more interested with the possibilities of leather beyond footwear.

Liam Dillon Designs was founded around a single material Liam discovered over the course of his experimentation: vegetable tanned kangaroo leather. This unique material is a natural by-product of annual pest control programs, which are overseen by the Australian government and operate under strict guidelines. As kangaroos are not farmed or bred, there is no water or land involved in cultivating their skins, all of which makes it arguably the most sustainable locally available leather.

On top of this, Liam only uses hides which are treated with plant-based dyes. ‘Vegetable tanning is a completely natural and ancient process that uses the tannins found in leaves and bark to produce a non-toxic and biodegradable material,’ Liam explains. ‘As with human skin, vegetable-tanned leather naturally ages with time. It can darken, mark and scar with use. It changes with you.’

Liam sources his kangaroo leather from the Packer tannery in Queensland – an internationally renowned family business now run by the fifth generation of Packers. And it is the only material he uses, cutting each piece by hand and employing a traditional technique called ‘skiving’ to bend the leather into shape without wearing out the crease. After cutting and shaping the leather, Liam stitches the folds together on an old Pfaff sewing machine; though with some thicker pieces he must bevel the sides by hand. Such a deliberate choice of a single material means he can focus on doing one thing and doing it really well.

‘I work with incredibly beautiful, old machinery, knives and hand tools that I have acquired over time,’ he says. ‘Working in an old craft means that a lot of my machinery has been around longer than me.’

It may sound painstaking and old-fashioned, but Liam relishes the time and focus the process involves, and it’s given him an intense respect for the life his materials have lived before they reach his studio. ‘Kangaroos are wild animals, so their skin is often scarred or marked. They get in fights, they bound through the harsh Australian bush, they get bitten by insects. I choose to embrace these imperfections in the leather, because they tell a story’ he says.

As the native leather is dyed in natural tannins, the ochre earthiness of the dry Australian landscape shines through in every one of Liam’s designs. A true representation of the land it came from!

As enamoured as we are with Liam’s dedication? A selection of his pieces are available at Handsom and Error 404. He will also have a stall at Rose Street Artists’ Market in Fitzroy on the 23rd of January, the 6th and 20th of February. 

Learn more about Liam Dillon Designs here.

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The Design Files acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the lands on which we work, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. We pay our respects to Elders past and present.

First Nations artists, designers, makers, and creative business owners are encouraged to submit their projects for coverage on The Design Files. Please email bea@thedesignfiles.net