First Settlement Goods – horsehide belt review

The First Settlement Goods workshop, manned by leather artist Oliver Sell, operates right next to the Context menswear store in Wisconsin, USA. From this workshop, Oliver creates some of the sleekest American leather goods. The First Settlement Goods house-style is an interesting one, saddling both Americana and minimalism.

I’ve been meaning to check out Oliver’s work for some time, but due to blog scheduling issues, it’s only just recently that I was able to see his craft in person… a very special piece we have here too, slightly modified from the usual belts he crafts for the Context store.

This handsome beast right here is a detailed version of the First Settlement Goods horsehide belt. Let’s take a careful look.

 

Leather

The leather from which this strap has been cut is Horween Tannery’s horse butt strip, the fully vegetable tanned version.

This is one of the few Horween leathers that is pit vegetable tanned. The strip is cut horizontally from the equine hide, sitting just above the shell cordovan portions – it is thicker and denser than most other parts of the horsehide.

As you might have seen on the blog over the years, horse butt can be a tricky leather due to its tendency to be inconsistent in both thickness and grain markings.

For this belt, however, Oliver has sourced some A+ run horsehide, some of the cleanest I’ve ever seen. It’s on the thicker end of the scale for horsehide too, measuring 4.0 mm (or 10 oz).

The natural markings of the horsehide is quite spectacular, and has a very three dimensional look, especially in natural light.

This pattern of tonal difference provides an excellent background to showcase the strong grain growth of horsehide.

In the photos above and below, you might have noticed that the belt loop is different in both texture and shade compared with the strap… that’s because it’s not horsehide!

Well, it’s natural shell cordovan, also made by Horween using a similar pit vegetable tannage, with a whole lot of hand-processing afterwards to create their famous shell. Here it weighs in at 2.0 mm (5 oz).

Shell cordovan, by its very nature, has no grain. The density and oiliness also surpasses other parts of the equine hide. Therefore, I’d expect to see it age in a way which will, in terms of texture, contrast with the rest of the strip. The colour should end up the same shade of dark brown, as I’m assuming the pit tanning liquor for both the shell cordovan and horsehide butt strip is similar as far as tannin origins are concerned.

There’s a twist to the leather here.

You might have noticed the colour and texture of this belt is different from natural horsehide. The darker colour and defined grain is due to Oliver dubbing both the grain and flesh sides of the horsehide with his homemade dubbin, which consists of three oils and two waxes. The natural oily horse strip becomes even more dense with fats, so this leather should prove very resilient over a long period of time.

You may already know that horsehide is denser, more resilient and possess naturally stronger grain definition than cattlehide. The particular look of horse hide grain and natural patterning have been further emphasized here by the hand-stuffing process.

The grain growth really pops out – the ridges and tiny triangles that define the horsehide grain is fully showcased here.

In the photo above, you can see by how this belt fits that, initially, this horsehide belt will be stiff. The hand-stuffing process has softened the temper a little, for sure, yet horsehide remains much stiffer than cattlehide. With this belt, if you’re unfamiliar with horse butt strip, you’ll have quite a new experience!

 

Hardware

Oliver has paired the natural horsehide with all-American hardware.

The brass buckle is rugged – solid from prong to frame.

With a few weeks wear, the buckle should be ripe for some patina development!

The buckle is easy to use, smooth in operation and does not scratch the leather at all.

Oliver offered other hardware options, including Japanese and English makes, though we both agreed the American brass was the best match with the horsehide strap.

 

Styling, Detailing & Construct

This belt is an entirely handmade work.

Compared to other ‘crafted’ belts, significantly more effort has been invested – so let’s take a look at how this has manifested.

Firstly, check out the most construct intensive portion of the belt, which is the buckle fold.

Here, we have two horizontal rows of dense, hand-sewn saddle-stitching.

The strap has been subtly skived.

The resulting fold is perfectly neat, even on side profile inspection.

The fold also perfectly accommodates the chunky shell cordovan loop and the solid brass buckle.

You will see that even the prong hole fitting is absolutely precise and burnished.

The hardware fits like a glove – no wobbling, yet not too tight as to restrict movement – buckle perfection.

The saddle stitch is looking very fine too.

This quality of sewing is something I haven’t seen on many belts coming out of the Americas. The tension is pulled just right, and the wheat coloured threads sit at grain level.

The stitches are densely made, at 8 SPI.

The backside of the buckle fold is neatly finished too.

The First Settlement Goods logo is the only embellishment here, stamped at the center.

The prong holes are done in my favourite style – tear drops!

The outline of the drops are smoothly burnished.

The tip is finished in a single-sided taper.

This is the default shape at First Settlement Goods, and a very classic one it is too – adding workwear vibes to the strap.

Finally, the edge burnishing.

You can see for yourself in the photos below – an almost liquid shine has been achieved.

On closer inspection, we can see that the fibres are neatly packed, very dense and very smooth to the touch.

Both sides of the edge have been subtly trimmed, to add refinement to the finish.

This is some of the nicest edge work I’ve seen – dense, smooth and very pleasing to observe – and proves to be a highlight on this belt.

 

Thoughts

Oliver has crafted one of the nicest leather belts I’ve seen come out of North America, with stitch-work matching those of top tier English workshops and burnishing that compares well with the slickest work from Japanese craftsmen.

As far as first impressions go, full marks for First Settlement Goods – this horsehide belt is rugged, handsome and extremely well made.

This belt is entirely handmade, its creation involving a fair bit more hand work than most “crafted” belts. Certainly, the extra effort is made known through the overall sleekness and refinement of the belt – this is a better product than most hand-made belts you’ll see come out of the Americas. The precision of the buckle fold sewing, the perfection of the edges, the hand-stuffing front & back – all the crafting elements have been taken to another level.

Consider too, that this super dense horsehide is not an easy leather to tame – to present such a refined appearance meant that all the little aesthetic details and crafting processes had to be spot-on. You will see dozens of veg tan horsehide belts being sold via various menswear stores, and very, very few will approach the high quality of this belt.

The leather is no joke either. This is Horween’s highest grade of vegetable tanned horsehide, much cleaner and more consistent compared to much of the horsehide they make. The grain growth, density and shine are incredible – much better than most horsehide I’ve seen, let alone cattlehide! This is fantastic strap leather indeed.

The thickness along the strap is very consistent, a point to examine on horse butt strip belts. It’s really awesome that Oliver has managed to find a strip thick enough (4 mm) for a single layer belt – the unlined nature of this strap, combined with the dubbing on both sides, means that the rigidity is manageable, and the belt is very comfortable to wear compared with other veg horse straps.

To balance out this review, I really should discuss some negative aspects or areas for improvement, yet I found it hard to criticize the craftsmanship here. This horsehide belt is one of those rare pieces without major issues under a critical eye. Yet, this particular belt is a little different from the ‘standard’ belt which Oliver offers through Context: the buckle fold has been stitched, rather than screwed. I must say, I do not like screws on my belts, and so I’m glad Oliver was able to saddle-stitch this horsehide belt for me.

As far as styling goes, this belt is a perfect match with denim jeans, and can also be incorporated into the more casual end of a menswear  or Americana wardrobe. There’s a good balance between ruggedness and sleek minimalism – I really like how Oliver has managed to present classic Americana with a more refined aesthetic. There’s a smokey American flavor here that you seldom find on similar caliber work-wear belts from Japan.

At $130 USD, this is not the cheapest belt, but I’d say it is one of the very best work-style belts you can acquire at any price. Unless you’re after decorative stitch patterns, forged buckle or detailed carvings, work belts don’t get any better than this.

All in all, a refined and handsome belt – easily recommended!

Leather and denim fans should definitely take a look at Oliver’s work. Check out some of his past crafts on his website, or take a look at some ready-to-ship accessories via Context.

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