I do hope that when you choose to purchase leather goods, that you are looking for something that will last a lifetime. If that’s your intention, then there are a few things you should know about how different makers and mass-producers are making things, cutting corners, and generally speaking tricking the consumer.
Before we go there though I should first put in a good word about my own shop! Since the beginning I have designed leather goods in a way that will help them last through a lifetime of abuse. My goods tend to be simpler than other brands…and that’s on purpose. The reality is that the more complex and unecessary parts that a leather product has…the more likely those parts tend to fail. Every design in my shop is built to take on abrasion, force, weight, and abuse. Parts are riveted together with high quality solid brass rivets. I use stainless steel and solid brass buckles. And perhaps best of all – I stand behind everything I make with a 100 Year Guarantee.
Now, let’s dive into some of those dirty little secrets a lot of makers hope you wont find out…
STITCHING Shortcuts: buyer beware
First and foremost, you will notice that the vast majority of wallets out there are stitched. Now, I have a personal bias against using stitching in wallets due to the amount of wear and handling they see. Wallets tend to get handled thousands of times more often than a bag or any other leather good. As such the weakest link will be the stitching. This is usually the first to go in almost every wallet I have ever seen, and is usually the reason customers come to my shop for the riveted style. Thread can fray easily with repeated rubbing in a pocket, and it just takes one stitch to break before the whole thing will come open.
1. Beware of the machine sewn wallet. This is the worst way to make a sewn wallet (also the cheapest, fastest, and most profitable way for the company doing it). The sewing machine is very limited to a certain kind of stitch called a ‘Lock Stitch’. It’s not nearly as nice as it sounds. Without getting too technical, a lock stitch does not actually ‘lock’ a stitch in place. In fact if one ever breaks, quite the opposite will happen and the entire piece will quickly unravel. Most people have actually experienced this unfortunate event with their first wallet or two! It can be hard to spot machine sewn wallets, be on the lookout for an impressed pattern in the leather close to the stitch. It’s where the sewing machine presser foot holds the leather during a stitch. Also look for thin thread, most sewing machines use a scrawny looking thread.
2. Unwaxed thread. Another attribute of machine sewn wallets is that the thread they use is unwaxed. Waxed thread helps to bind a stitch together when hand sewing, keeps threading tight, and it helps to protect the thread from the elements.
3. Thin Thread. There are many types of thread out there and all are made from individual fibers rolled or braided together into a long strand of thread. Some are natural fibers and some are man-made…but all thin threads are weaker than thicker ones and will have less fibers in them resulting in failure much earlier on.
4. Exposed stitches. Stitching, regardless of whether by machine or by hand is supposed to be placed in a depressed groove in the leather. Stitching should not be right on the surface of a piece, rather a good quality piece will have it lay in a small channel of leather. This keeps the stitch lower than the surrounding leather and out of the way of day to day abrasion. Some makers will actually cut a groove into the leather to lay the stitch into, beware of this practice on wallets and other thin leather items…removing the top layer of leather actually significantly weakens the leather. You might expect the leather itself to fail on a piece with a cut groove vs a depressed groove.
5. Round stitch holes. I see this a lot in leather goods today – the round holes used for a stitch. There’s only two reasons why a maker would do this – it’s fast and cheap. Round holes will not hold a tight stitch and if one were to ever fail on you…the entire piece would unravel within seconds. The traditional and correct method is to use a diamond shaped awl to cut diamond incisions into the leather (no material is removed). This makes an extremely tight space for stitching and helps to hold the stitch firmly in place. You can tell if a round hole was used simply because the maker usually cuts big round holes…also the stitching will look very straight compared to the zig zag pattern of a proper diamond shaped hole. Oh it’s worth noting that most round holes are created because the maker uses a laser cutter to cut their patterns…also a big no-no (see below!)
6. Widely spaced stitches. This is also another common shortcut, spacing stitching holes out to reduce the number of stitches necessary. Less stitching equals less holding the piece together. If you see a piece with 1/4 inch or more between stitch holes – be aware of that.
If you do go with a hand sewn wallet, likely they will use what is called a ‘Saddle Stitch’. This style actually creates a very weak knot buried in each stitching hole to help hold the stitch in place. It does a decent job holding things together if a stitch ever breaks…giving you enough time to still use the piece until you can get it repaired. This method takes much much longer to do, so the items tend to cost a bit more.
Laser Cutting and Engraving: buyer beware
There are a lot of people out there making wallets that have been laser cut. The leather is put into a small laser cutting machine, a template is loaded onto the computer, and the shape is burned out of the leather. Now – people doing it this way will often tout that their wallets are precision designed and cut with a laser beam, but believe me – the last thing you want to do is burn leather. Leather and extreme heat do not mix well – it creates toxic off-gassing and it depletes the leather of natural oils. Extreme heat also hardens the proteins in the leather creating a very stiff fiber (boiled leather was used in ancient times as shielding in battle). No amount of re-oiling will bring back that laser cut edge, and it will forever be brittle and crack.
I also tend to see a lot of laser engraved leather. Basically your name or initials are burnt into the leather using the same laser cutting machine…except it doesn’t cut through. It just burns it. In burning off the top layer of leather you are in fact removing the toughest part of the leather. The uppermost layer contains the most densely packed fibers and it is not somethign you want to remove. Burnt leather will crack too. Some companies employ this method because it allows for an infinite variety of personalizing the piece for the customer…it’s cheap, quick and is actually the worst thing to do to a quality leather piece.
Type Of Leather: buyer beware
There are many many types of leather out there. They are classified by the cut of the leather and the way is was preserved. I have an entire page on that here, but in short this is the easiest way for a company or maker to cheapen their product. It’s why some wallets cost $20 and others $100. It’s why some fall apart after a year and others last a lifetime. Click here to read more.
Hardware: buyer beware
Snaps, rivets, grommets, chains, buckles, keepers, eyelets, clips, d-rings, split rings….all items that help to fasten and hold together leather items. All of which can be made from most metals…and only a few of which are recommended for leather goods. Solid Brass or stainless steel is the first choice due to durability and anti-corrosion properties. That type of metal costs much more than the other options such as regular steel or zinc. It’s an easy way to cut a corner and cheapen a product and a lot of companies will do it. Unfortunately it can be hard to tell what type of metal is used on the item, so it’s best to at least ask the maker.
Tip: Here in the workshop, wherever possible I use solid brass or stainless steel. Almost everything in the shop is made from these types of metal with the exception of a few keychain parts and random items where it is not yet available.
Belts: buyer beware
Did you recently purchase a ‘nice’ belt from a department store? Take a look at it, is it two layers of leather stitched together? Does the center bulge out a bit giving it a nice looking bulk? If you answered yes to all of those questions, it is likely your belt was mass produced using two sheets of Bonded Leather sandwiching a piece of cardboard. Bonded leather can look nice at first glance, but the truth is that it is actually ground up leather waste pressed into thin sheets with glue for use in mass-production. Cardboard, well we all know how strong that is! This is used as a cheap ‘bulk up’ method to make that belt feel more solid. This is the type of belt that may only last a year or two. Not all are made like this, but it’s worth noting that it is a popular method of construction in mass made leather goods.
Tip: Here in the Mr. Lentz Workshop I make belts from one solid piece of thick Full Grain leather. No layers stitched together, no tricks.
Wallets: buyer beware
In the paragraphs above I have covered quite a bit about corners that can be cut in wallet making. In addition to those you should know that there are companies and makers out there using incorrect types of leather, low grades, poorly oiled (or not at all), and dyed with toxic chemicals. Actually when a wallet is dyed with traditional chemicals and not done properly and sealed afterward…it can leach into your clothing and even your skin.
Tip: Here in the workshop I use my own all natural shop-made leather dye. I make it from plant based materials that are non-toxic. I also use my own all natural shop-made conditioner from all natural ingredients as well. I work with leather with my bare hands all the time, there’s no need for gloves. In addition I also use what is called Full Grain Vegetable Tanned leather from the top U.S. tannery. It is the highest grade you can buy in the U.S. More info on that here.