Don’t Mourn, Organize – talking leathers with Scott Willis

Our next featured leather craftsman is no stranger to the denim circles. In fact, if you are a denim or workwear fan, you’ll most likely have come across Scott Willis‘ handcrafts at some point. Today we talk about all things leather with Scott, and also learn a little about his workshop, Don’t Mourn, Organize.

Photo by Angela Maxwell.

Hi Scott, many thanks for giving us your time. For our readers who are unfamiliar with your work, could you tell us about Don’t Mourn, Organize and how it began?”

It all started around 10 years ago when I was on the hunt for a simple top grain, vegetable tanned guitar strap. I couldn’t find one anywhere that I liked, or disliked for that matter. A simple, natural, veg tanned guitar strap didn’t seem to exist at the time. So, I thought I would make my own.

Luckily for me, there is a very talented saddle maker just a couple of blocks from my house. I went to his shop, purchased some leather, a couple of simple tools, he gave me some good advice, and I made one. I was instantly drawn to the craft. Working with untreated veg tanned leather is a joy and its possibilities are endless.

I have been into vintage clothing as long as I can remember, and I have particular longing for horsehide jackets. I thought why not try to make a belt and a wallet from vegetable tanned horsehide if it exists. I did a little research and found that Horween produces such a leather, so I ordered some and – through much trial and error – made a belt and a very crude wallet. I ordered some more and got a little better at it.

I frequented the saddle making shop a lot during that time. His advice was invaluable. He taught me how to make a saddle stitch, how to burnish edges, how to sharpen my tools, and countless other skills.

Eventually I got comfortable enough to offer a few things on Ebay, and to my surprise, they sold.

The next step was to buy a heavy duty stitching machine so I could make bigger projects like bags and stitched belts. With the advice of my friend I bought a harness stitcher. I still have this machine along with a couple other vintage upholstery machines and a very cool old Landis needle & awl machine.

I named my company Don’t Mourn, Organize after a famous slogan that Joe Hill wrote before he was executed by my home state of Utah in 1915. I am a school teacher and building rep for my local teachers union. I’ve been a fan of the labor movement and Joe Hill for some time. I wanted my products to reflect the quality and craftsmanship of the labor era, so the name seemed to fit.

“So it all started from a one man mission for a guitar strap! 10 years on, what do the daily operations of Don’t Mourn, Organize look like these days?”

I have a couple of stores who order 100 – 300 belts from me every couple of months, so that takes up a lot of my time in the shop these days. I also take custom orders through e-mails. These consist mainly of belts, wallets, and bags. Whenever, I get caught up on orders, I experiment with new leathers and new designs. There is still so much I need to learn.

“How has you leather crafting evolved over the past decade?”

I really didn’t know anything about leather crafting, at all, when I started. Cutting simple designs and hand stitching is where I started. I now have several vintage sewing machines, skivers, and splitters that I’m slowly learning how to maintain and operate. I now put raw edge bindings on my bags. I can make double and triple gussets, add zippers, etc. I continue to get better at saddle stitching. Doing it right takes a lot of practice.

Photo by Angela Maxwell

Your vintage machines sound fascinating. Could you tell us a little more about them? Which is your most prized possession?”

I have a 70’s era Adler 167 triple feed machine. The old Adlers are serious work horses. They were designed to sew upholstery leathers and fabrics all day long.

I also have a 1960’s Consew model 18 walking foot, a very old Singer 29k patcher, a Singer 45 clone, a Juki 440 clone, and a Landis 16 needle & awl machine that is probably from the 30’s or 40’s.

The Landis is my prized machine. It’s huge and because it’s a needle & awl machine, it makes a beautiful stitch.

Photo by Angela Maxwell
Photo by Angela Maxwell

You mentioned you have an interest in vintage horsehide jackets. Tell us about horsehide. Does it have different wearing or aging characteristics compared with other leathers?”

Since the decline of horses that were once used as working animals, their tanned skins are not nearly as available as they once were. I only know of one tannery (Horween) in North America that regularly produces them. Although, I have purchased limited run hides from a tannery in Colorado and another in Mexico.

Almost all of the horsehide I get come from Horween in Chicago. They make a soft, thin, chrome tanned horse that I use for bag linings as well as their signature Chromexcel tanned front quarter and butt horse. They also make veg tanned horse butts and shell cordovan.

Veg tanned horse butts are used mainly (to the best of my knowledge) for shoe soles, molded gun holsters and very stiff belts. I use them for belts, bag straps, and occasionally watch bands and bracelets. It’s a very dense, tight grained leather that takes dye well, and burnishes very nicely. As a belt, it starts out quite stiff but breaks in nicely with time. In its natural state, it develops a unique russet patina – especially if oils and/or waxes are added to it. Horween is also producing double front horsehides in natural Dublin which is a full veg tanned leather. I’ve got some on order but haven’t received them yet. I’m very curious.

Writer’s own Pony Express mailbag reproduction made by Scott in 2010. Notice how the horsehide straps have aged.
Writer’s own custom postal backpack, featuring vegetable tanned horsehide straps, made by Scott.

Over the years, denimheads in particular have developed a strong interest in your work. Are you a raw or vintage denim fan yourself? Any advice regarding choosing leathers that will age alongside our jeans?”

My fascination with selvedge denim started years ago when I could still find “redline” Levi’s in thrift stores. I still have a few pairs of vintage selvedge 501’s and probably too many other raw selvedge jeans from other companies.

I personally think that thick skirting leather works best with jeans. I stock it in 15/16 oz. It’s a pure veg tan that has had very little done to it after the initial tanning. It doesn’t necessarily need any care, but if one treats it occasionally with oils and/or conditioners, it develops a very deep and beautiful russet patina. Like raw denim, no two belts ever look the same after some wear.

Harness and bridle leather also make great belts. They too, are veg tanned, but then curried to different levels of refinement at the tannery. American tanneries make nice harness leather, but I haven’t been able to find any American bridle that comes close to what the English do. Genuine English bridle is hand stuffed with waxes & fats to create an incredibly durable leather that can be buffed & polished, and continues to look great for many, many years.

Photo by Angela Maxwell

Do you have any advice for people looking to purchase their first pieces of hand-made leathercrafts?”

I am constantly on the hunt for new leathers. When it comes to natural skirting, strap, and carving leathers, I like the American tanneries — Wicket and Craig and Hermann Oak. However, there is also some very nice heavy leather coming from the Mexican tanneries, Chahin and Teneria. There are brokers in the States who work with these tanneries and have developed some really nice skirting and harness that is on par with W&C and Hermann Oak. It also comes in thicker weights – up to 17 oz.

Bridle leather that comes from the North American tanneries though, isn’t nearly as nice as genuine English bridle from England. It’s really not even close. I get my bridle from either Clayton of Chesterfield or J&E Sedgwick. These hides are hand curried by very skilled and experienced leather finishers and the quality is amazing.

I recommend looking for a top grain belt that has been cut from the back and/or butt of the hide. This is the firmest part of the hide and makes the best belt. Hardware is important too: I use marine grade stainless steel and solid brass whenever possible.

As far as thick single layer belts I recommend the following:

For a low maintenance heavy duty belt that will last a long time, harness is my favorite. For a belt that’s going to develop an interesting patina that is unique to the wearer, I recommend skirting. For a more refined and finished belt, genuine English bridle is the way to go.

I also make belts from veg tanned and Chromexcel Horween horsehides.

Writer’s own 6 year old custom belt, made by Scott with skirting leather.
Writer’s own Americana belt made by Scott using 16 oz harness leather.

You mentioned skirting leather. I remember the first belt you made for me was from a strap of 15 oz Wickett & Craig skirting leather, and it has aged very well over the years. Why is skirting leather a good option for a natural belt?”

I’m a big fan of skirting leather. It is mostly used in the saddle and tack industries but also makes a beautiful belt. Like raw denim, it patinas and ages according to how it is worn and cared for. Skirting has very little treatment from the tannery after the initial bark tanning process. It can be worn like this without applying any oils or conditioners. Or, one can apply various coats of oils and/or conditioners for a very unique finish. Eventually the leather develops a dark russet patina with a nice pull up and satin sheen that one can’t quite get with harness and bridle leathers.

Speaking of English bridle and other more finished leathers, could you enlighten us regarding their care & maintenance? Which care products would you recommend?”

For drier veg tanned leathers like skirting and strap, I like something waxy like Montana Pitch Blend or Obenauf’s. It’s not a bad idea to use Neatsfoot oil or Mink oil before applying conditioner to these. I look for products that are all natural and use beeswax instead of paraffin and have some kind of anti bacterial oil in them.

Since bridle and harness (especially Genuine English Bridle) are stuffed with waxes and oils, they don’t need nearly as much conditioner as skirting or strap leather. I’ve had good luck with Saphir and [Bickmore] Bick 4 leather conditioners for these leathers.

Writer’s own Sedgwick bridle mid-wallet, made by Scott using the Conker colour variant.

On the subject of American leathers, I am reminded of a wallet you made for me with 50s NOS shell cordovan. What do you think of shell cordovan as a material in the crafting of small goods like wallets?”

Shell Cordovan is amazing. I’ve never used the Japanese or Italian shells but have done quite a bit with Horween (American) and Clayton’s (English). I’ve mainly used it for wallets and watch straps. For wallets, I like to use it for the exterior panel with something a little thinner, like veg tanned steer or goat for the interior parts.

I like to look for consistencies in thickness and finish across shell as well as a good finish on the back. It should be able to bend without cracking. Lately, it’s been very difficult for small companies like mine to get shell. It’s also gotten very expensive. Horween, for example has a 12 week wait, and that’s just for black and #8.

Don’t Mourn, Organize crafts are now stocked in shops overseas and also on Massdrop! How do you find the time between work and leather crafts to work on these big projects? Do you have other hobbies or passions outside of vintage goods and leather?”

The custom orders I still do by myself, but when I get a big order (usually belts), I get some help. I teach high school so during holidays and summers, I’m able to get caught up in the shop.

I used to race bicycles and love to collect and restore vintage racing bikes. I don’t get as much time to ride them as I like, but when I do, Utah is ideal. We have lots of canyons with little car traffic during the week.

I also play in a band and get a kick out of fixing up old guitars & tube amplifiers.

Scott’s English bridle leather belts are also available via Massdrop. Photo by Angela Maxwell

Will you tell us more about this band you play in? I saw a clip on Instagram by Jeff Decker…you guys looked pretty cool!”

The band in the clip you saw is called Other Desert Cities. They are some friends of mine from California who came to Utah to play at a party for Jeff Decker’s Hippodrome Studios and another friend of mine, Chandler Scott, who owns and operates a custom hat shop here in Springville called Tatton Baird Hatters. They got me and the other guitar player from my band, The Utah County Swillers, to sit in with them for one song.

Do you have any advice for people looking to start some simple leather crafting at home?”

Like everything else it takes a lot of practice. There are many great resources on the internet. Leatherworker.net is a good place to start. Good tools are important and make a huge difference. I wish I would have avoided some of the cheap stuff and started with quality tools. A good edger and awls are very important.

Will Don’t Mourn, Organize! have any new designs or special projects for 2016/2017?”

I’ve been getting more into bag making. I’m currently working on different messenger, tote, and duffel designs.

Many thanks for your time Scott. Any other words for our readers before we sign off?”

Thanks, Michael, for the opportunity to talk about my business and leather craft. It’s been an honor.

—END

Many thanks to Scott for sharing his insights.

You can find Don’t Mourn, Organize! here, or keep up to date with Scott’s work via his Facebook page.

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