A worn-out saddle or pair of chaps finds a second life as a bag, wallet or sandals through the talented hands of Mike Balitsaris of Waltzing Matilda. We caught up with Balitsaris to learn more.
Waltzing Matilda’s pop-up booth at the Devon Horse Show felt like an oasis tucked inside the maze of shops, all with their tables and walls decked in bright patterns and garish colors. Things were different here — the colors richer, more subtle. The heady aroma of top quality leather perfumed the air, more intoxicating than a favorite tack shop, as I browsed the one-of-a-kind pieces hanging on the walls. Simply by stepping under the canopy on a rainy morning, life felt a little slower, each detail more important.
And that’s exactly the way it should be. Waltzing Matilda is the dream brought to life of artisan, designer and craftsman Mike Balitsaris, celebrating the beauty and process of truly handmade pieces that tell a story. That’s not just fancy wording for marketing — Balitsaris showed me individual pieces, letting me feel each one. After all, leather is a tactile experience: for those of us used to holding reins, pulling on boots or running our hands over a saddle, leather is very much about feel.
Balitsaris traces his love for hand crafting leather goods to a experience while he was in college. “I went to Greece and I bought a pair of leather sandals, and I wore them all through Europe that summer. When I got back to school, some friends of mine wanted me to make them a pair, so I made two or three. I went back to Greece twenty years later and no one is making those sandals like they used to. It breaks your heart to see the ‘dumbing down’ of arts and crafts.”
Not only is Balitsaris still making things the old-fashioned way — that is, by hand, with attention to detail and the individual look of a particular piece of leather — his original pieces repurpose old leather goods, telling their story in a new way. He pointed out a bag that was part of an old Navajo-pattern saddle blanket and an old pair of chaps, and one of his most unique showcase originals was a bag made from ammunition cans from World War II.
“The only new commercial thing I use is a Riri zipper — it’s the best zipper in the world. I know how annoying it is to have something nice and the zipper doesn’t work!”
Waltzing Matilda’s line is twofold: original pieces of repurposed leather and fixed products of Balitsaris’ design. All products are hand cut and hand stitched, such as the Aspen tote: “These totes are all the same pattern with the same dimensions, but we still hand cut the leather. The rings for the handles are all forged by hand in bronze — I couldn’t find anything with the vintage look and the weight that I liked, so even though these cost a bit to make, they really make a difference.”
Waltzing Matilda produces out of three microfactories in Wayne, Pennsylvania, Brewer, Maine or Geneva, New York. “We can keep people in work in these towns that would otherwise have to go do something not quite as artistic.”
Balitsaris’ favorite aspect of his work remains the original pieces made from repurposed leather: “I love the patina of old chaps. A lot of these pieces are different scraps of different things, whether they were saddles or chaps or just scrap leather from a shoe factory.
“I had someone come in with a saddle that had belonged to the grandfather — we ended up talking about what it meant to the grandfather, and how everyone in the family was fighting over it, and we talked into cutting up the saddle and making something out of it for every person in the family to have their own keepsake. I love commission work, when people give me the rein to just create.”
Whether Waltzing Matilda designs an original piece or produces a fixed product, consumers can know that their bag, wallet, sandals or tote represents hours of skilled craftsmanship and handiwork. In a world where almost everything is increasingly machine- and mass-produced, it’s comforting to find a corner of the market that can truly breathe life back into old leather, letting your favorite piece of tack or a beloved but worn-out pair of boots tell their story all over again.
“If I had to characterize this as a brand,” Balitsaris described, “it’s stories.”
Check out the full Waltzing Matilda line of fixed products and get more information about how to commission your own work by visiting the website.