I recently spent an amazing four days taking lessons from Maximo “Machi” Prado, a master rawhide braider in Pergamino, Argentina. The gaucho braiders in the Pampas of Argentina produce the finest braiding imaginable, and Machi is among the best.
I have been braiding kangaroo leather for 30+ years, but I never got formal training in this. I learned everything from the “bible of braiding”, Bruce Grant’s Encyclopedia of Rawhide and Leather Braiding. I also never braided rawhide, which is very different than kangaroo. The best rawhide for the fine gaucho braiding in Argentina is made from horse, which is not readily available in the US. However, Machi tells me that deer and antelope both make excellent rawhide too. Cow is too heavy for the fine work.
Machi never finished high school but is one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met. Not only is he incredibly skilled in the craft that I traveled to learn from him, but he reads a lot of history and has thoughtful perspectives on the politics of his country and the world. He speaks much better english than I speak spanish, despite many trips to South America and many years of effort to try to improve. He is also welcoming and generous with his knowledge and time. Even though he is a traditionalist in his craft and only uses traditional tools and materials, he likes to listen to Nirvana, Pink Floyd, jazz, and (of course!) Piazzolla in his shop.
If I had to summarize 40+ hours of intense one-on-one learning that I got with him, it is:
Every technique was vaguely familiar from my saddle working, but everything was different too. The skill I was most anxious about was cutting the lace, but that turns out to be quite easy. The difficult part is making the “guia”, which is hand made from a cow’s horn with a very sharp knife inserted at just the right angle to cut the lace the right width. Machi has 8 of these for different width strands, and he sent a cow’s horn home with me so that I can make my first. If this doesn’t work, he recommends teflon (though I’m sure that would never be seen in his shop!).
Out of everything that I learned–cutting lace, braiding a fancy knife handle, edge braiding, round braiding, flat braiding–the hardest for me was beveling. This is the procedure to cut the sharp edge from the front of a strand, which in fine work is often less than 1-mm in width. As Machi put it, you take the “hair of a woman” from the strand. There is no fancy tool or guia for beveling. It is just holding a guard leather over your left fingers, placing the strand under your thumb (gordo), and with a very sharp knife, cutting the edge.
Looks easy, right?? (just joking…) There are several things that are important in beveling: the left hand “shows me the edge” by tilting the right way; the thumbs of both hands touch to form a brace of sorts; and the knife just rides along the edge. But the most important step is to RELAX! It is harder than you might think, holding a tiny strand in one hand and a very sharp knife that is placed onto the (protected) fingers of your left hand.
My shoulders were tight, my stance was skewed, my hands were gripping so tight that I ended up with a small cut just from the pressure from the back of the knife. Machi would either say “relax” or (my favorite) “work comfortably”. The funny thing is that when everything relaxed, I could suddenly do it. It was like magic!
It was then that I started to realize once again some of the universal “truths” that seem to cover everything. When I was a young ice hockey player, I loved the book “Inner Tennis”. It talked about the need to quiet the mind and let the body do the work, such as return a 100+ mph serve. When you are tightening up extra muscles, you work against yourself and become less effective. This is the key to goaltending in ice hockey, to most other sports that I’ve played, to music, to drawing, and to tai chi and other martial arts. It even applies to science and education, where it is important to be able to see the big picture and to interpret data and observations with a quite mind. It is always important to relax, and the relaxed mind can accomplish a great deal just as a relaxed body to learn to bevel rawhide strings effectively.
In my next post reporting about this trip, I’ll show some of the key steps that went into making the knife handle. Stay tuned!