Common wisdom when buying a belt is to get one two inches longer than your pant’s waist size. But no two people wear their pants the same way. The best way to determine your belt size is to measure the distance from the point on the buckle where the tongue meets the bar down to the hole you use at the other end. The belt maker will then make the belt using that measurement.
Custom belts are made from better leather and with a better buckle than store bought belts. At Dally Leather I use Latigo leather which is infused with oils and waxes to make it pliable and durable. This leather is available in black, dark brown, burgundy and light brown (sometimes called “yellow”). Vegetable tanned leather can be dyed to the color of your choice if you have a special request.
Both Latigo and veg-tanned leather quickly forms to your body and wears beautifully. The more you wear it the better it will look and feel. Like a fine pair of shoes the belt will need the occasional polish. Avoid pure neatsfoot oil because it will soften the leather so that it stretches and darken the color. A neatsfoot oil based cleaner is alright to use, but saddle soap is the best cleaner and conditioner.
At Dally Leather I use solid brass buckles with several different finishes that will last a lifetime. They develop a lovely patina and polish from wear. Some store bought belts will have buckles painted with a gold shellac or chrome that will eventually chip. The buckles I use will not chip.
I hand sew the buckles onto the belt using a saddle stitch unless the customer requests snaps. Most store bought belts use glove snaps, but at Dally Leather I use larger brass snaps to increase security. If you want to change your buckle, snaps are the way to go, but not all buckles are the same size. To get the best custom fit the buckle size has be accounted for in the measurement. Avoid a belt with a buckle sewn on straight across the width because this weakens the leather.
A custom made belt from Dally Leather will have burnished edges, a four stage process, and a hand rubbed finish. That is something else you will rarely find in a store bought belt. I will cover values unique to custom made items in a future blog.
If there is not a standard use for these terms then there should be. To me hand stitched means that there are no machines involved in the process, that the needles are placed and pushed through the leather by hand. Hand sewn means an individual sat at a sewing machine to join the leather together. There are many mass produced leather goods labeled “hand sewn” but don’t be fooled into thinking they are hand made.
Hand stitching is better than hand sewing when you want a stitch that stays locked if the thread ever breaks either through trauma or wear. The kind of stitch I use almost all the time is called a saddle stitch. A needle is attached to both ends of the thread and you pass the needles through the same hole, back and forth, as you move along your line of stitching. This means the thread is under pressure in the seam, so if it breaks somewhere along the line it won’t unravel like a machine sewn seam.
Another advantage of hand stitching is that you can use high quality threads of various sizes. I use two kinds of thread: linnen from France (seen in the belt hanger above) and braided polyester Tiger thread. Most of the time I prefer Tiger thread because it lays flat, it is extremely strong and durable, and it passes through the hole with little friction. I either punch the holes for the thread with a stitching iron or mark them with a pricking iron. The stitching iron makes the holes so that you can immediately come back through with your needles and thread. This is particularly handy when working with thin leather. The problem with a stitching iron is that the holes might be too large and therefore unsightly. With a pricking iron you make the holes with a special kind of awl and stitch as you go. Both methods require a lot practice to acquire the skill to make an even and beautiful stitch.
The advantages of machine sewing are speed and you can make very small stitches with very small thread, such as you see on many shoes. It can a take a lot of time to set up a sewing machine for a particular job. If you are sewing a lot of the same kind and type of leather in the same pattern in a production line then a sewing machine makes the job a lot easier and faster. If the seam is hidden then there is no point to use a saddle stitch if you don’t need the strength.
Hand stitching takes a lot of time and effort to master, but once you have the skill it is often quicker than sewing when making custom or one of a kind items. And a machine sewn seam will never look as nice or be as strong as a hand stitched seam. Only top of the line mass produced leather items will be hand stitched, and they will be very expensive. Only small, independent craftspeople like myself offer hand stitched items at a price the average person can afford, at least in my experience.
The terms “bespoke”, “custom made, “made to order” along with “artisanal”, “curated” and “one-of-a-kind” are buzz words used to describe, and market, goods. Some are buzzier than others, but they all mean something the maker makes at the request of the customer. It is in essence a partnership. When I make any piece I have someone in mind, either real or imagined, but when I make a piece with a customer, using their ideas, their wants, and in some cases their designs, then I really have to give my whole attention to them.
I take note of the way they dress, their body type and size, the shoes they wear, their belt, their jacket, anything that adds details to the story I am forming in my head about them. In many ways bespoke projects, where I speak with the customer, are more difficult than when I make something for the idealized customer in my imagination. I want to listen very carefully to what the bespoke customer says so that I can not only make exactly what they want but also make it better than what they want. My main concern, always, is that the customer will be happy.
Most bespoke projects require that I learn a new skill or work with a new material or design. I love that. But it also adds time to the process, and I am terrible at estimating how long a project will take me. I always underestimate, no matter how much of a buffer I add to the estimate. So, that means I don’t usually make much of a profit on bespoke items. Still the pleasure of partnering with the client makes it worth while.
Almost every time someone contacts me about leather work they ask me if I have a web site. I am figuring it out, slowly but surely. This will be a place to post photos and write about what is in the works, but not a place to list items for sale. Time in the workshop is difficult to get because I work a full time job with a lot of travel away from home. Still, I hope this blog will offer some insight into my leather work business, which will include handmade shoes in the future.
My other interests include bagpipes. I play Scottish Highland pipes, Scottish Lowland pipes, Scottish smallpipes and Northumbrian smallpipes. I also play whistles and the D#C two row button accordion. And, although I am not very accomplished at playing it, I have a uilleann pipe chanter I made on a “Pipemaking Holiday” with Ray Sloan (www.raysloan.com). My YouTube page, where you can see and hear some piping, is here:(https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC6Qo1xxqSwcYECQ7Vm6CBdQ). There are many more sound files on my Soundcloud page here: https://soundcloud.com/john-dally. You can also look me up on Instagram under Dally Leather.
Thank you for reading this and taking a look at my fledgling blog.
Note: my personal veg tanned leather rucksack, seen above, is not nearly this RED in real life.
A sabretache was a flat bag that hung next to the light cavalry trooper’s sword. It was use to carry orders across a battlefield. Roman legionaries carried a “loculus,” a kind of cross-body haversack. Today, we carry bags of similar design to carry computers, tablets, books, papers, phones, and any number of things. I prefer to use hand dyed veg tanned leather, hand stitched, and solid brass hardware.