This is a topic I’ve been meaning to tackle for a little while now.
Some weeks back I was asked to help a first-timer in picking out a suitable leather for his heavy-weight belt, and he was quite surprised when I recommended to him a vegetable tanned harness leather rather than a saddle/skirting leather.
In the following spew of leather rant I shall attempt to explain why…
For the logical man the first question would probably be: What’s the difference?
Well, traditional leather production (the British tradition, which informs the basis of American and Australian traditions) splits vegetable tanned saddlery leathers into broad categories of bridle, harness & saddle.
It’s pretty simple actually – bridle leather has been tanned & processed to become suitable for bridle rein making, the harness leather similarly for horse harness making, and the saddle leather for the seat on top of whatever you’re riding…and thus by virtue of their different functions the leathers must possess different characteristics.
Of course, even within a specific category, every region (well, indeed every tannery) will have a different approach in the manufacturing process; thus in comparing the different categories I can only do so in very broad terms.
Saddle leather is usually very raw, minimally finished and presents itself as the driest in hand and most ‘natural’ coloured.
Due to its lower oil/wax content, saddle leather will be lighter per measure of thickness, have lower pliability, and will not resist the effects of water.
In other words, in as-new condition, saddle leather is the least rugged out of the three types and the most difficult to take care for in the context of our hobby.
The upside is that, as it is the most unmolested finish, saddle leather has the most potential for evolution.
For an experienced hobbyist no other type of belting leather will age better than a pure vegetable tanned saddle leather that has not been dyed, stuffed or otherwise finished.
What about harness leather?
Let’s have a look at a few different varieties…
^ Triple C natural harness (almost new)
^ Thoroughbred/Teneria blonde harness (aged)
^ Baker’s oak-bark shoulder harness (brown, aged)
^ Wickett & Craig waxy harness (black, aged)
As you can appreciate, even in my predominantly saddle leather belt collection there is already a few harnesses that are quite different to each other.
Surely there must be a mind-boggling variety produced around the world?
True that this may be, almost all harness leathers share a defining characteristic in comparison to saddle leathers:
A higher oil & wax content that has been infused into the leather after the basic tanning process – i.e. the skin has been converted into leather – has been completed.
This means that a harness leather will have a smoother hand.
There’s more body to the leather, as the weight per thickness is higher.
The grain will have a higher durability and be more water resistant.
The leather will not need to be oiled or cared for as much as saddle leather does – maintenance is easy.
The increased initial pliability means that the belt made from harness leather will mould to the wearer better than an untreated saddle leather belt.
Many tanneries do offer harness in a “natural” colour for our hobby, similar to the colour below and perhaps even a little lighter.
The colour of harness, however, usually won’t be truly natural (the pale fleshy colour of saddle leathers, almost blue in some instances) – it will be a pale tan at the lightest.
For the beginner though, this will not be so much of a concern…and indeed, it may even be preferable as the colour of the belt will look great from the get go.
Folks who have been doing this leather evo thing for a while will know that true “natural” or nume (as the Japanese call it) is an awkward colour – it doesn’t play nice and won’t go with any other colour, neither your #8 shell cordovan shoes nor your natural indigo denim…
The love for saddle leather is like an ugly duckling story – with time the beauty blossoms, and the transformation is what fascinates.
With harness leather, this transformation is not as dramatic, but still provides for plenty of fun without too much hassle or the need for in-depth maintenance knowledge.
So, in terms of saddle versus harness, I’d be inclined towards a harness belt if you are just starting out in the hobby or if you simply do not have the time for messing about.
The evolution process will be enjoyable, but you won’t need to scratch your head over the composition of conditioners or the development of a maintenance schedule.
Newbie-friendly fun 🙂