Hi folks, we’re beginning a series of conversations with a few craftspeople from around the world. First is a very interesting discussion with Charlie of the well regarded British workshop Equus Leather.
“Hi Charlie, Thank you for spending some time with us! Firstly, for those unfamiliar with your work, could you please tell us about Equus Leather and the people behind it? ”
Equus Leather was founded by my wife Dawn and I eight years ago, as much as anything simply because I couldn’t find a belt made to the standards of workmanship or leather I wanted. I’ve worked with leather for 20 years or so, initially making saddlery, and we are still strongly influenced by the equestrian world from which we come. Every single piece we make is entirely hand stitched and made from start to finish by our team here in England.
I run the creative side of the business, and still make a lot of the more complex products myself, as well as the design work and training across our small team. Dawn runs the Customer Service side of the business and sends the products we make all over the world. We’re still a small business, dedicated to making absolutely the best products we can. We’re best known for our belt collection, but we also make watch straps, wallets and products for our canine & equine customers as well as truly bespoke orders which can be anything the customer can think of! We work a lot with true English Bridle leather, including the oak bark tanned leather from J & FJ Baker. We also work with calf and exotic leathers now, too. My aim for the business – what we work towards each day – is for us to make the best leather goods in the world.
“For those of us who are unfamiliar with English Bridle leather, could you help us understand why Equus Leather prefers bridle for belts and straps? Practically and aesthetically, how is it different from, say, chrome or oil-tanned leathers?”
Our background and heritage is saddlery, so Bridle leather is very much the material with which we are most at home. As a result you might say, “They would think that’s the best, wouldn’t they?”. I suppose that’s true, but it’s a wonderful material for belts because it’s just the right thickness, it’s not too stiff or too soft, it’s made here in England and it ages beautifully – a key factor for us – it looks great when new but also it can look great 20 years later. True bridle leather is vegetable tanned, which is a fundamentally different thing from a chrome tanned leather.
Chrome tanned leathers are usually softer, so not good for a single layer belt. Also, whilst they are difficult to scratch or mark, once they have been scratched the mark is there forever. Whereas with vegetable tanned leather marks and scratches tend to disappear over time, so it is ideal for a long lived belt. We do use chrome and combination tanned leathers for our fully stitched formal and double layer belts, and you can achieve things with them that you can’t with bridle or other vegetable tanned leathers, but for a single layer belt in particular Bridle leather is pretty much unbeatable.
“Many people new to quality leather goods often remark that they cannot tell the difference between different makes of belts or watch straps. In your professional opinion, what separates a high quality belt or strap from a pedestrian one? What are the finer details we should be examining?”
I think this is largely because most people have never seen really good leatherwork, which is unusual, specialist and expensive. On the whole the only thing to be chosen between high street/mall brands is the logo; they are all made in low labour cost countries in the same way using similar low cost materials, hence people think all leatherwork is the same…at that level really it is.
I think primarily it’s first impression: If something is made well using good materials, it should look like that! If it looks average, it probably is. It should also feel good – it should be tactile, feel good in the hand without being rough anywhere. The quality of materials is a key thing, and good leather stands out. After that it’s looking at stitching, edge finishing, fittings, the details that make the whole. Become a detail freak and you’ll quickly learn to differentiate.
I think this applies to may things, not just leatherwork, the details are what tell the tale of the care with which something was made – car, house, belt or whatever. You don’t have to be able to make whatever it is, or even have studied the techniques for years. Poor workmanship tends to stand out if you look at something at the macro level.
“Equus Leather also seems to have a focus on the quality of buckles, the limited edition Retetsu & Japanese Damascus buckles look especially nice. What is your professional opinion on what we should be looking for in a buckle, and the qualities of the different metals potentially used?”
We do put a lot of time and effort in to buckles, from the most simple up to the work we do with precious metals and Damascus. I’ve always said that a product is the sum of its details, so all the details have to be right, including the metalwork. It’s such an important part of a belt, really the part you interact with the most – you should love it as much as the leatherwork.
The factors to look for are rather like leather: look at the details, the finish, the quality of construction, the feel of the buckle in your hand. It’s important to know what the buckle is made from, as many are a really light alloy plated to achieve a colour effect.
It’s never going to work out well if your buckle is described by the vendor as “Gold Coloured”! What does that mean, other than they really don’t care about it other than its vaguely the colour they want?
Solid metals are always the most long lived option, so try to buy buckles that haven’t been lacquered. The lacquer will fail over time and look horrendous. If you need to buy a buckle with a plated finish, buy it from somewhere that will finish it well so you get a good, thick layer.
“I see that Equus Leather offers a large variety of different belt styles, buckle choices and leather selection. Do you have any advice for potential customers in terms of matching these options with their intended outfits? In particular, any thoughts on what might be suitable for people who are interested in raw/loomstate denim?”
We do have a huge amount of choices! I think you should try to match character, largely, so with raw denim the Oak Bark tanned leathers from Bakers are ideal. They have more character, more weight and a variegated colour that are perfect for that kind of thing. Of course the Russet colour is the stereotypical raw denim look, and it works well, but equally some of the other colours (London Tan, Oak Brown, Light Havanna and Dark Stain) work brilliantly too and give a more considered look, perhaps.
Once you’ve matched on character, looking at the colour of the boots or shoes is a good next step – not to match perfectly, but a similar colour family is a good thing.
Above all buy and wear what you love! If you think a particular leather or colour is amazing and you love it, pick that one regardless of anything else. A contrarian approach is always a good thing. Wear the things you love, regardless of any rule book.
“I know natural coloured, or russet, leather belts are not your house style. That said, Internet denim geeks seemed to have taken a liking to the russet Military belt you created back in 2011/2012. Could you share with us some tips regarding how we might best care for a natural coloured leather such as the Baker oak-tanned russet bridle?”
In some ways its very much our house style, or at least a variation of it. Much of our leather buying is based on the question “How will this age?” – the leather ageing and patination process is something I love. Personally, I prefer to start with a little – but only a little – more colour in the leather. Colours like Bakers London Tan, Fawn Baranil or Brandy Ostrich are the perfect colours for me, and those are basically the colours that Russet will age to.
I love beyond all thing the rich brown colour of aged leathergoods. I collect Victorian and Edwardian luggage for instance just for that colour! So while un-dyed leather is a touch stark for me to start off with, the ageing and patination is something I care very much about.
In many ways the best way of achieving this colour is time and use – if you want something to look aged it has to be aged. Helping it age well is important though! I think that the Sedgwick Leatherfeed is one of the best products for the Russet – it nourishes leather well, it helps dull the starkness of brand new leather without altering it too much, and it helps soften new leather, but not too much. It’s a lanolin and beeswax based product, and any of the similar products will work well too, I imagine.
“What effects do you think Brexit will have on the leather tanning & crafting industries in Britain?”
It’s too early to be sure, but there are opportunities and threats from this. For sure, the destruction of the value of the pound is helping our buyers from overseas get a bargain, and I’m sure that other firms who sell in £ are finding the same thing, so that has to be a good thing.
The problem for us comes from the fact we import our calf, exotic leathers and tools from France (we don’t make them here in England any more, sadly), and the collapse of the £ is going to make those imports much more expensive, furthering the difficulty of cross border trading. Brexit is going to make business more difficult, complicated and costly…but it’s too early to be sure of exactly how it’s going to work, I think.
“Bridle stitching is an important aspect of leather work. What are the hallmarks of good stitch-work?”
Actually, its Saddle Stitch, rather than Bridle Stitch, though of course just to be confusing its used for bridles!
The hallmarks of good saddle stitch is regularity. To stitch well, you have to do the same thing over and over again, precisely (and I mean precisely!) the same each time, and that should produce a stitch that’s the same every time. The stitch should be evenly spaced, of a correct pitch for the weight of leather used and evenly angled. The stitch is very distinctive and when you know the details its easy to recognise. Typically it has a front and back, the front being very uniform as the stitch marks make it so, and the reverse being a little less defined, but only a little less. You’ll pay a significant premium for well saddle stitched leatherwork, but it’s far superior to any machine stitching.
Take a look at some of our videos, we cover the process in some detail.
I could happily write dissertations about stitching, it is something I love.
“Haha, Bridle Stitch? What was I thinking?”
“Could you tell us about the tanneries from which you source Equus Leather’s hides? Do you further process the leathers in house before crafting?”
We buy from a number of the world’s best tanneries here in the UK and France. Our bridle leather comes from JE Sedgwick and J & FJ Baker here in the UK for instance, and our calf comes from Degermann and Annonay in France. On the whole we don’t process the leathers further, other than to thin it to the correct weight for the item we’re making. I take the view that the tanneries know their leather and techniques the best, and so if we want a particular colour or finish that’s what we buy. This is so the leather is as good as possible. I know many of the small firms prefer to dye and finish themselves, but there’s no way to improve on the research the tanneries put into this so we prefer not to further process the leathers.
The tanneries we chose to work with are generally those who share an interest in similar types of leather to us. For instance, Bakers in Devon concentrate specifically on hand-made oak bark tanned bridle leather, with an extremely long (two year) tanning process and a hand-dying process that produces leather with beautiful natural colour variegation, which is much nicer than the artificial antiquing that’s popular at the moment. Degermann make beautiful leather that’s tanned specifically to patinate beautifully, it’s combination tanned leather that’s enriched with a special liquor in the finishing process that means the leather starts out quite matt but burnishes to a beautiful aged finish. We spend a lot of time and energy searching out exactly the right leathers.
“Outside of British Bridle, are there other leathers that you find interesting or would like to work with?”
Many! To be fair we do already use many interesting leathers, such as the leather from the wreck of the Metta Catherina. We’re always experimenting and looking for more new leathers though, and searching for interesting and unusual skins. Recently we’ve been concentrating on expanding the range of exotic leathers we have. For instance, we have been sourcing great Ostrich skins. Ostrich isn’t very fashionable at the moment, but it has amazing wear and aging characteristics that make it well worth a thought – it fits in beautifully with our philosophy of how leather should get better with age.
“Shell cordovan seems to be experiencing a sort of renaissance. What are your thoughts about shell?”
Shell is interesting. Strictly it isn’t leather. It isn’t made from skin…it’s made using a ligament sheet, hence its different appearance. Products made using it are certainly nice, but it’s not a leather we work with. Our background is making products for horses, so making products from horses doesn’t seem the right thing to do!
“Many small label and single craftsman leather companies have popped up over the years, and many feature prominently on social media. The average customer is certainly offered many choices from around the world! From your professional perspective, what details would you look for to distinguish the work of an experienced professional from the work of a novice craftsman?”
The resurgence in leatherwork has to be a good thing for the craft. The more people taking an interest, the healthier the craft as a whole. Leatherwork in some ways is very approachable – to make a wallet, really you just need some leather, a knife, needles and thread – so you can work from your bedroom. Really good work takes years & years of training, practice and a big investment in leather & tools. Just like my earlier answers, detail is everything, and the details will tell you the story of the product. The refinement of the leather, design, stitching, cutting and edging tell you the tale of the craftsman’s experience and talent. Even a fairly beginner product on Etsy should be somewhat better than a very cheap import from the Far East.
“Many thanks for sharing with us Charlie. Any final thoughts or tips for us?”
Buy what you love!
Big thank you to Charlie!
Certainly, after wearing in a couple of Equus Leather belts over the past years, I have to say details and beautiful aging are present in spades!
You can see his world class belts & straps or request custom work over at Equus Leather.