A very useful and informative guide to what the stuff stamped on the back of your belt actually means.
Ron Rider gives some simple tips on how to clean up and restore shell cordovan shoes. Above is a pair of black boots he worked on. The right shoe is what the restored one on the left used to look like. If you want to purchase the various products he mentions in his post, you can buy them from his store.
I love photos like this. It reminds me that if you invest in quality shoes, you can get as much, if not more, from taking care of your shoes as you can from buying new ones.
Also, note that in the comments section, Ron explains what causes those welts on shell cordovan shoes once they’ve gotten wet.
How to Examine Quality in Leather Goods, Part II
We talked last week about how to judge the quality of leather, but there’s more to leather goods than leather, of course. There’s also the hardware and how everything has been put together. High quality leather will mean little if the brass snaps on your bag break or the lining rips out. So today, we’ll review each in turn, and talk about some things you can look for when shopping around.
Any bag or piece of luggage will be made with a variety of hardware. These can include swivel snap hooks, which are commonly used to attach the leather shoulder strap to the bag; tucks, which are used under a buckled strap so the strap does not need to be buckled and unbuckled; and various latches. Any of these can fail if they’re not made well. Frank Clegg, the eponymous owner of Frank Clegg Leatherworks, told me last week that zippers are perhaps the most common point of breakage. “We had a $600-700 leather coat dropped by our workshop just recently,” Frank said. “It had eight different zippers, all of which had the pulls snap off. The zippers had pulls that look similar to the ones we use, but instead of taking a wire loop and casting around it, they cast the loop into the pull. The cast metal just snaps off when it’s that thin.”
Frank suggests that consumers look for something that’s of a good weight. High quality hardware has a thicker look and feel, and the casting seams are usually removed and polished. If the metal has been treated with some kind of finishing, you may also want to examine the quality of the job. Solid brass, for example, can be left natural (which is OK) or polished and then lacquered, and zinc and steel can be plated with brass or nickel. If these lacquering or plating jobs haven’t been done well, the metal can look dull or foggy in a short period of time.
In addition to the leather and hardware, there’s the matter of how everything has been put together. Much of this depends on the type of product at hand. For example, belts will have their own standards. A high-quality belt will have a leather lining (if the design requires one) instead of the cheap paper stuffing that lower-end manufacturers use. You may also want to examine whether the keeper has been squared off (shaped into a rectangle), and whether the details, such as any beveling, have been done well.
One thing you can look for on all leather goods is the quality of the stitching. Naturally, these should always look neat and straight. You may also want to see if the edges have been left raw or if they’ve been turned. Turned-edge leather is made in a way that’s similar to how the edge of a piece of garment has been finished – the edges are turned underneath and then stitched. This yields a more attractive and durable edge, but of course, whether it can be done depends on the job at hand. Alex Kabbaz of Kabbaz-Kelly & Sons has a good article on this you can read here.
Leather products can be expensive, but if you purchase the right ones, they’ll last decades and only get better with time. Look for fully tanned, full-grain leathers; smooth, durable hardware; and neat stitching. If applicable, also look for edges that have been turned and sewn, rather than left raw. You should examine for these things on the outside as well as the reverse side, inside, or any other parts that don’t normally show. Even if they’re not easily visible, a top-quality maker will make sure that all parts of the product are pleasing and well done, and these are signs that you’re buying something of quality.
How to Examine Quality in Leather Goods, Part I
I recently had the good fortune of talking to Dave Munson and Frank Clegg – the two men behind Saddleback Leathers and Frank Clegg Leatherworks, respectively – about how to discern quality in leather goods. While many men at this point know how to judge the quality of suits, shoes, and even sweaters, few know how to tell if a bag or wallet is well made. So, given Dave and Frank’s expertise in the field, I thought I’d ask them for their thoughts.
This short-series will be covered in two articles. For today, we’ll talk about how to examine the quality of leather itself.
The Basics of Leather
Obviously, at its foundation, the quality of any leather good should be judged on the quality of the leather itself. As many already know, you should always shoot for full-grain leather, ideally one free of scars, blemishes, or fat deposits. Lotuff Leather has a good primer on how to look for these things.
Other types of leather include top and split grains. These are made by splitting a piece of leather into two layers. The top (top-grain) is typically sanded down and finished with some kind of chemical processing. This is what we typically call corrected-grain leather, and while it’s cheaper, it also has a colder, more plastic-like feel, and results in less breathability. Over time, it will also age less well and you won’t get the nice patina that you would with full-grain leather.
Split grain is what’s left after the top-grain has been separated from the hide. This part is often made into suede or embossed with a print so that it looks like full-grain. Unlike true full-grain, however, it’s often thinner and not as durable.
Finally, we have bonded leather. This stuff is basically junk. Here, leftover scraps of leather are grounded with glue and then bonded together in a process similar to vinyl manufacture. It’s basically to full-grain leather what particleboards are to solid wood. It neither looks nice nor lasts well.
How Manufacturers Cheat
So you know that full-grain should be preferred to top and split grain, and certainly to bonded leather. But this isn’t enough, as manufacturers often cheat. How?
Well first, there are semantics. A manufacturer can say that something is made from “genuine leather” when it’s actually top or split grain, or even bonded leather. They’re not lying. It is made from genuine leather. The other way is to say that something is “made with full-grain leather” when only part of it is. Again, they’re not lying. A bag can be partly made with full grain leather, while something as cheap as vinyl is used for other parts.
The other way to cheat is by buying full-grain leather that hasn’t been processed fully. See, after a tannery removes the moisture, oils, and hair from an animal skin, they put it into giant drums with tanning solutions. These drums are expensive, however, and can cost upwards of $100,000. The tanning solutions they use can also be costly. To curb some of these expenses, some tanneries won’t let the hides sit in the drums as long as they need to. That way, they can process more hides using fewer drums and less tanning solution. In the end, the leather on your products can fade and crack with too much sunlight. You can tell whether something has been fully tanned by looking at the edges. Assuming it hasn’t been painted over with some type edge finishing, such leathers will appear blue in the middle, which shows that the tanning solution hasn’t been allowed to soak through all the way. You can see this in the write up that Dave published on his website.
When we spoke, I asked Dave whether such “half-tanned” leathers are really something you’d ever find on more expensive products. “All the time,” he said. “Not all of them, of course, but if the company they outsource to is not carefully watched or if it is something that the brand is not aware of, then they’ll be getting low quality leather that is hidden with rolled or painted edges to cover up the poorly tanned leather.” Dave also noted that this isn’t something you tell just from the outside grain. The leather feels the same, but the middle will dry out and crack. The only way to tell is by looking at the edge and seeing if the middle is blue, but this also assumes that the edge hasn’t already been covered.
In the end, if you’re buying a leather good, you should aim for full-grain leather, but also make sure that the tannage has soaked through all the way. You may also want to ask the manufacturer whether the product was fully made with full-grain leather, and examine the skin for defects such as scars, blemishes, and fat deposits. Of course, many products will have some kind of defect somewhere. Often this will be done in places where the consumer can’t see, such as the inside of a bag. This doesn’t automatically discount the quality of the good, necessarily, but it is something you may want to consider if you’re paying top-dollar for something.
Come back Monday, when I’ll talk about the quality of hardware that’s often used, as well as a bit about the construction of leather goods.
Save on Suede
If you’re looking to cut corners on shoe spending, this is exactly where you can do it. The suede in casual shoes like these serves the same purpose as corrected-grain leather - it helps cover up imperfections in hides, allowing the shoemaker to save money on cheap leather. Unlike corrected-grain leather, though, it still looks perfectly decent. Maybe not quite as lustrous as fine-quality suede, but plenty good enough.
Similarly, the rubber soles on these casual shoes save the manufacturer money, but they’re also appropriate for the shoe style. Since you’re unlikely to re-sole a rubber-soled buck anyway, the advantages of quality construction, like ease of re-soling, are greatly reduced. These are knock-around shoes, and you should pay knock-around prices.
If you buy a wingtip at full retail and pay $125, you’ll get something that is very obviously of poor quality. The leather will be visibly cheap - shiny and plasticky. The shoe won’t be resolable, and will be unlikely to last. It’s simply not a good decision.
Buy a suede buck for $125, and it’s a different story. When it comes to suede casual shoes, $125 buys you a shoe that’s pretty darn close to what you’d get for $300, at least in practical terms. There will be a difference: the construction of the expensive shoe will be better, the materials better, the styling perhaps more elegant, but the performance gap is much, much smaller than with a dress shoe. And when you consider that shoes by mid-range companies like Cole Haan and Johnston & Murphy can often be found on deep discount, there’s no reason you have to spend more than $75 or $80 for a pair of bucks or suede saddles.
A good friend, GW, sent me this wonderful video about shell cordovan. The film reminded me of another video I’ve seen about how calf leather is made. Both are worth a watch.
As a note, if you’ve never handled shell cordovan shoes before, your priority for the next week should be to get your hands on some immediately. Reading about shell cordovan on the internet is no substitute. There is a reason why so many menswear enthusiasts go crazy over the stuff.
Major P.J. Pretorius
Sept. 5, 1919
Kenklebosch, South Africa
Technical clothing has come a long way since Major Pretorius’ day.
When we first checked in with the blog Fleshfoot, the proprietor had purchased a brand-new pair of natural tan boots, with the intention of wearing them every day for a year and reporting back as they wore in. Above: the original shot of the brand new boots, and a second one from eleven months later. The transformation is remarkable.
An anonymous emailer brought these lovely longwings to my attention. They’re from a new venture by Florsheim called Florsheim Limited; the model is the Veblen. They’re Goodyear welted and unlike Florsheim’s regular longwings, they’re made with full-grain leather, not corrected grain. The particularly nice bit is that they’re only $160. They’re made in India, so don’t expect the world’s finest craftsmen to be working on these, but on paper they look like a superb value. They’re available from Endless and Zappos among other places, so you should be able to find a coupon to bring the price down even further. Well done, Florsheim!