Whips and Whipmaking

Humans have kept and used livestock for thousands of years. The domestication of animals for food and labor dates back to around 10.000 years ago, and it has played a crucial role in the development of agriculture and human civilization. Oxen and horses were used as draft animals for various tasks, such as plowing fields, pulling carts, hauling heavy loads, and general transportation. At this time in history, whips were an essential everyday tool used to keep the wheels of society turning. Unlike popular belief, whips were not made as a weapon to strike or hurt animals or humans. Instead, it was all about the sound. The characteristic crack of the whip would steer herds of cattle in the right direction, signaling to the horses that it was time to pull or encourage a stubborn cow to move through an open gate.
And this was life for hundreds of years.

Whip-making was a very competitive industry. A medium-sized town could have several businesses that focused on turning out whips to meet high demand. In these shops, it was not uncommon to see several braiders by their hooks, making several whip thongs each day. Shop owners would cut the leather out of sight of the employed braiders and throw them the leather to be braided. By doing it this way, they could ensure that every last piece of leather was being used, and hence maximize profits, but also prevent the braiders from quitting their jobs and starting rivaling businesses. They would know how to braid, but they would not know how to cut their leather properly. Information on how to make whips was considered a trade secret, and anything you knew about it you kept to yourself.

In the early 1900s, the Industrial Revolution was booming. The horses and stagecoaches were replaced by cars, the oxen were left in their pastures as tractors rolled out onto the fields, and the use of actual horsepower subsided. This meant that over a very short time period, an entire industry that supported the horses went belly-up. If you were a blacksmith, built carriages, or whips, you were losing business quickly.

Around the 70s, 80s, and early 90s there was a surge in interest in whips. Largely thanks to Hollywood productions featuring whip-wielding characters such as Indiana Jones, Zorro, and Catwoman. Luckily, there were still a few remaining craftsmen alive who learned how to make whips in their youth, so the knowledge wasn’t completely lost. At this time, before the internet, finding information on how to make whips was very difficult. If you knew the name of someone and in what city they lived, you might be able to track them down by phone to ask a few questions.
Those who tried to learn whip-making during this time will tell you of their struggles in finding information. And if they managed to find someone who knew a thing or two, getting them to share some of their knowledge was like pulling teeth. Many of these old-timers held their cards close to their chests, as this was how they were brought up and taught. One simply wasn’t supposed to share these secrets. Sadly, many took their knowledge with them to the grave, but others started opening up. Realizing that the knowledge would be gone for good if they didn’t.

This little spark of interest in whips and whip-making was what was needed to bring the art of whip-making back from the brink of extinction.

These days, there are books on How To Make Quality Kangaroo Leather Whips, there are video tutorials online, as well as communities with both whip makers and crackers that are very open to helping beginners learn.