Sewing Leather Into Art

By Beacon Staff

“Everybody gives me dragonflies,” Marilyn Bacon says eyeing her shops south facing windows with their dragonfly stickers, sun catchers, and figurines. Bacon’s business is “Dragonfly Stitches,” and the namesake sits by five Singer sewing machines, perches next to patterns and projects and hovers over reams of leather.

Bacon started sewing when she was about 10.

“My dad figured that all of the girls should know how to sew,” she recalls. “My sisters and I would make things, and if we didn’t like the pattern, we’d make our own pattern.” Now, at 60, that skill is the basis for her art and a nearly 30-year-old business.

Bacon works out of a shop behind her home; a rough, gray stone path curves around an old farmhouse, through gardens and right up to its stoop. Inside, sun pours in through the windows, lighting up the patterns and casting shadows across the leather.

“Heat is the only thing that destroys leather, so when they brand it, it scars,” Bacon says as she smoothes out a dark burgundy piece. She places the paper pattern strategically across the hide, checking for scars and cutting so as to leave as little scrap as possible.

First she works out a pattern.

“I get a lot of design ideas from my customers,” Bacon says, “A lot of times I’ll design a bag with a certain customer in mind.”

She fits the pattern to the leather, and then uses a rotary cutter to slice through the material. Bacon will glue certain pieces together and stitch the rest herself on one of her old Singers. She’ll occasionally outsource some gluing and sends her nearly finished purses to another woman who puts in the lining.

Her wallets, purses, and masks are all made of leather purchased from tanneries and trade shows. The pelts themselves vary greatly; from ostrich, to frog, snake, beavertail, cow and the bead-like stingray. Bacon hand paints the masks, but the purses are all tanned in vibrant colors.

The leather is either chrome or vegetable tanned. The vegetable-tanned leather Bacon uses for her masks and flowers. This technique allows for the leather to retain a shape; you wet it, form it into something like a flower, and as it dries, it holds that shape. The chrome-tanned leather, used for the bags, softens back to its original shape after it gets wet.

Bacon first worked with leather making wallets in shop class, then, when she was about 20, she worked in a factory in Ogden, Utah, making coats for J.C. Penny’s. About 30 years ago she moved to the Flathead. The idea for “Dragonfly Stitches” came up unexpectedly shortly before she had her second child. Bacon had been working with a friend, making leather vests. She wanted to make herself a little purse to tuck inside the diaper bag.

“So I designed myself a little clutch purse, a couple little coin purses and a wallet,” Bacon says. Her friend was impressed and brought Marilyn’s pieces to the Hockaday Museum’s winter fair, and all of them sold.

Three kids and 27 years later, Bacon’s work has been a fixture at summer art festivals. She also attends about 11 art shows a year throughout the West. She has a daughter in Arizona and her dad and two sisters in Utah, “I do at least one art fair just to see them.”

She’s actually hoping to travel less. In a little over a week, she got home from a Spokane art fair on a Sunday, went to Missoula the next Monday to work in a gallery where she shows, and then headed to Seattle Wednesday, for another art fair.

“Now I have a grandchild, I don’t want to leave much,” Bacon says. She wants more home time for several reasons, not the least of which is time to put new patterns to paper and create some new designs.

Bacon is now working on a Web site and getting more work into galleries. Currently she shows at Leather Works in Coeur d’Alene, Montana House at Apgar in Glacier Park, Kindred Spirits Gallery in Glacier International Airport and The Artists Shop in Missoula.

Silver flashes outside Bacon’s shop window from a child’s pinwheel. Her youngest son has his snowboard on the front porch near a playpen set up for her grandchild. Marilyn herself is at work, sifting through the leather to find the perfect piece for her next project.