A few years back I was introduced to British oak bark leather through Tender Co.’s line of belts. Since then I have had the good fortune to explore belt projects based on J & FJ Baker tannery’s natural oak bark tanned leather with a couple of talented British leather craftsmen, creating unique belts that are the perfect companions for raw selvedge denim.
When I saw that Tom at Hawkmoth Leather Co. was using this leather as the basis for his line of hand-made belts, I was instantly intrigued. Not only is oak bark leather difficult to work with, due in part to its density, thickness and strong fibres, but also the traditional saddlery techniques required are no mere party tricks.
Working out of Sussex, Tom Sanderson has been practising leather crafting for a few years now, and recently launched Hawkmoth Leather Co. to showcase his gallery of belt styles, each taking inspiration from a wide study of stylistic icons, ranging from traditional English saddlery aesthetics to the belt n’ holster styles of the old American West.
Reviewed here is Hawkmoth’s ‘Natural’ belt, in russet colour (natural oak bark leather), with no finishing applied to the leather itself. Keep in mind that Tom offers wax finishing as well as layered hand-dyeing for Hawkmoth belts.
Firstly, I have to say that I’ve never owned a belt that’s as nicely packaged as this. Hawkmoth’s belts come in a very nice belt pouch, made by Tom with military canvas and parachute webbing, and it has a leather handle too!
I feel like the pouch could have been it’s own product, but it’s just the packaging, the goody is inside! The vintage style design is based on old military canteen holders.
The handle was added so that the pouch could be hung on a wall, if desired.
Long-time readers of my blog will have no doubt read about my love of Baker’s oak bark tanned leather multiple times over the years. Really, for the serious leather enthusiast, English oak bark tanned leather needs no introduction, and is a must have in your collection of leather goods – I would go so far as to say that one’s understanding of vegetable tanned leathers remains incomplete if one hasn’t experienced a slow-tanned bark leather.
There are only a handful of tanneries left in the world that slow-tan leather, and J & FJ Baker is the last tannery left in England which still practises the ancient method of oak bark tannage. At the Baker tannery, it takes on average 18 months for cattlehide to be made into oak bark leather, with the actual pit tanning of the hides occurring over at least 12 months and 1 day. Each hide progresses through pits with increasing levels of oak tannins, up to a maximum of 72 pits for leather which is intended for shoe soles. So, this leather that you see on the Natural belt spends at least one year in the tannin pits – far longer than any other vegetable tanned leather, which usually spends only 2 to 6 weeks in tanning drums. There is no acute physical disturbance or heavy chemical agitation, unlike modern vegetable drum-tannage, and the resulting leather is closer to natural perfection than any other.
Usually, then, the leathers are immersed in a combination of tallow and fish oils – the exact recipes being the trade secrets of tanneries and curriers (leather dressers) – and subsequently ‘set’, increasing the density of the leather and smoothing the grain. Variations & additions to this basic process produce England’s famous bridle leathers. The natural oak bark leather featured on this Hawkmoth Leather Co. Natural belt does not go through this bridle finishing process (currying and setting), and remains as natural as can be, a treat for the leather purist.
The end result of this time consuming and laborious process can be seen here on the Natural belt. See the incredible ‘growth’ of the grain, on full display due to the tannage preserving the natural characters of the hide and maximising the display of textures & pores. Feel the lightness and flexibility of the leather, despite the incredible thickness at 5.5 mm (almost 14 oz). Test the incredible toughness and strength, the end result of leather fibres being maximally preserved by the very slow up-titration of tannin concentration and minimally disturbed by the gentle processing in shallow pits.
This version of the oak bark tannage is, in contrast to those tanned for shoe soles, incredibly comfortable to wear despite the hefty thickness. Remembering that this is a raw 14 oz belt, see how I could roll it up and place it in the pocket of my vest, on the first day, before any feeding!?!?! Within 2 days, the strap has already developed a gentle curve that moulds the belt to my waist, making it unobtrusive to wear. None of these are possible with raw leather of other vegetable tannages – they would be way too unwieldy and stiff unless further processing occurs.
The single source tanning also imparts this oak bark leather with a unique patina potential: the “mellow yellow” colouring with age. This patination you will not find on leather tanned with commercial vegetable tannin concentrates, extracted usually from Mimosa or Wattle.
For example, here is my key tag, made of the same oak bark leather, in comparison with the new Natural belt – I have been using the tag daily for the past 5 years with no feeding or cleaning:
With this oak bark leather, seeing is not nearly enough. The fluid temper, textured handfeel and unique astringent smell are all part of the experience…these aspects, unfortunately, I can only describe to you in words.
Styling, Details & Construct
I feel Tom has done a good job in terms of preserving and showcasing the characteristics of this natural oak bark leather in both the design and making of the Natural belt.
What I find interesting is that the aesthetics of the Natural belt does not sit simply within the workwear style or the British bridle style. Noticeable are elements of North American leathercrafting and influences from 19th to 20th century European military leather accessories.
See the triple hand-sewn stitch at the buckle fold, the blocked & creased sewn-in keeper, and the embossed edge creasing along the length of the belt – all are reminiscent of old school English bridle belting.
Yet, the stitch colour does not follow tradition (which is usually yellow stitch with brass hardware), and instead is a more modern combination of white thread on natural leather that is popular among current enthusiasts. Further, both the thickness of the thread (larger) and the density of the stitch (less concentrated) reflect a North American style of construct.
The tension of the stitch is well executed, with the threads sitting very close to the surface of the leather grain. Tom utilises very thick Crawford Irish linen thread which he coats with organic beeswax sourced from local beekeepers. This very thick, American style stitching is not as even compared with traditional English belt work, but does impart a much more rugged style to the belt overall, allowing it to effortlessly combine with denim, gauze, flannel, chambray or other workwear & mil-pro fabrics in an outfit.
A solid brass roller buckle sits comfortably within the fold, and is allowed some, but not excessive, movement. The high quality of the hardware aside, see how the opening for the prong is nicely cut and burnished?
The brass buckle itself, from the swivel to the prong, is pure brass and very solid! Tom’s choice of hardware is much nicer than most roller buckles out there, which tend to be rather insubstantial.
The back of the fold is nicely finished too, a product of careful skiving and stitching. Three stamped marks can be seen here: The first being Hawkmoth Leather Co.’s maker’s mark (hawkmoth), the second a hallmark of the year 2016 (‘R’), and the third a symbol of Sussex, England (twin windmills).
The backside is smoothly finished and not coated with any wax or acrylic. The country of origin is proudly displayed.
Further down from the buckle hold sits a solid brass rivet, styled after the Gurkha kukri that came into distinction during 20th century wars.
Another rather curious detail on the Natural belt is the aggressive edge beveling, which imparts greater sloping at the edges than I have seen on other belts. Whilst this detail is not immediately noticeable, I realized that it had a great impact on the overall look of the belt, creating a frame-like effect along the length of the belt that draws attention to the grain of the leather. This makes the Natural belt more visually distinct compared with other natural leather belts.
The edge burnishing is an interesting aspect on the Natural belt. In years past, I have seen different approaches with the edge finish on a natural oak bark belt: Terry at Celtic Leathercrafts has for many years utilised a wax burnish that is impossibly smooth given the unyielding & relatively dry nature of this leather. Charlie at Equus Leathers, on the other hand, had opted for razor sharp strap cutting straight into 5 to 6 mm of this armor-like leather, without additional edge finishing, creating unfinished edges that remain strangely clean.
On this belt, Tom has opted for a method that is rather in-between. The Hawkmoth ‘Natural’ belt is edge finished with only water and effort. The resulting edge is smoother & more defined than an unfinished edge, yet is not as compacted or slick as a wax finish.
Further towards the end of the belt, there are seven well-spaced holes. I am impressed by the effort taken to burnish the holes, which smooths out the exposed fibres of the leather inside the holes. However, I also noticed that the leather grain surrounding the holes are ever so slightly depressed, sloping inwards towards the hole…I am not sure if this was a deliberate design or a by-product of the burnishing process, but it certainly does lend to a much nicer, more natural aesthetic.
Finally, at the tip of the belt is stamped Hawkmoth Leather Co.’s maker’s mark. You might notice that the belt tip has a fairly distinct, angular shape. If you have previously read my review of the NOS Swiss military belt, you may have guessed that Tom has also borrowed stylistically from the history of Swiss military leather accessories.
After spending a few days with this Hawkmoth Leather Co. Natural belt, I must say that it is one of the most detail-oriented belts I have seen. Tom’s eclectic approach towards belt crafting results in a lot of hidden details that blend into each other without detracting from the natural appearance of the oak bark leather. I honestly quite like how Tom has put his own spin on the classic English bridle belt; breaking from British traditions, and yet is more thoughtful than most North American interpretations of the bridle leather belt.
There are no excessive flourishes such as beads, tooling or stamped patterns here. Rather, the confluence of Tom’s many inspirations are revealed in the essential detailing and construct of the Natural belt. Apart from the rivet and circular stitching, none of the detailing on this belt are solely decorative.
When worn up to the third hole from the tip, the brass rivet and circular stitching are covered by the belt tip thus not visible to others. Consider also the 3 stamped marks are hidden on the backside of the buckle fold. Or even the fantastic packaging pouch that doubles as wall art. These ‘covert’ aspects speak to Tom’s attention to small details, making a belt that is not only a fashion accessory but also serves as a medium on its own, a piece of hand-craft for the owner to think about and enjoy.
The overall quality of the construct is very good – everything from strap cutting to hole punching has produced a belt that is aesthetically pleasing and looks every bit handmade.
Baker’s oak bark leather is well known to me, and Hawkmoth’s Natural belt would be my 5th oak bark belt. With first hand experience I can confidently tell you that this belt will age and wear very nicely, and also that I consider Baker’s oak bark leather to be one tier above any shell cordovan or exotic leathers.
There is perhaps an aspect of the Natural belt that I feel could be improved: The edges of the Natural belt is smoothed yet with stray fibres sticking out, creating an overall fuzziness along the edges.
With edge burnishing, my own preference is for either slippery smooth burnish or clean, sharp cut with the edge left raw – not anything in between. Despite my own preference, I do understand Tom’s reasoning for using water burnish on the Natural belt as opposed to other burnish agents or edge coats: so that the belt remains as natural as possible.
Keep in mind, for review purposes I have chose for the Natural belt to be unaltered and non-customised; I am sure that Tom would be happy to accommodate your edge finishing preferences.
At £120, the Natural belt is not the cheapest “natural veg tan leather work belt” that denim enthusiasts often favor, but I feel it is so much more than that. The level craftsmanship and material quality that has gone into Hawkmoth’s belts should mean that they are as much a featured piece in your outfit as your Japanese denims or Goodyear-welted boots.
If you are intrigued by hand-crafted goods or genuinely enjoy your journeys with denim & leather patination, then Tom’s range of Hawkmoth Leather Co. belts should prove very interesting to you! In particular, the Natural belt could serve very well for many years to come, and document all the scars and memories of those times.
For me, the Natural belt will be my companion for the next little while, as I break in my Japan Blue & Tanuki jeans. I’m very glad that I’ve come to know another British belt craftsman who specialize in working with oak bark leather!
To see an even greater complexity of techniques and even billet detailing, have a look at Hawkmoth’s range of Ranger and Propeller belts. Alternatively, to spice things up a little, consider the different hand-dye finishes or the decorative flourishes on Punjab and Memento Mori belts.
Check out Tom’s eclectic range of wonderfully hand-made oak bark belts at Hawkmoth Leather Company.