I went to pick up supplies today and overheard a conversation between the shop manager and a customer about a belt that the customer wanted to revitalize. It was a woven leather belt, and it was starting to crack and fade, right around where he was buckling it. The advice?
“Well, you could hang it up on the wall and look at it”
I laughed, quietly, to myself. It’s the kind of honest answer only someone who has been selling leather for thirty years will give you. He’s right – unless you want to take out those links and re-weave the belt, it’s toast.
Belts wearing out quickly is a complaint I hear all too often. Not from my customers, of course, but from pretty much anyone who has purchased a manufactured belt. It happened to me, too, before I started working with leather. The belt I was wearing actually started splitting in half – the front from the back – and once that started to happen, there was nothing to do but throw it away.
Here are some recent photos of a customer’s belt that he wanted color matched. It was his favorite belt, but had split completely apart and was unusable. The top left shows my solid color belt (left) next to his old belt for the color match (the leather will darken over time so I didn’t want to start out too dark!).
If you look at the top right and center left photos, you can see that the belt was constructed of three separate, thin, pieces of leather that had been glued together. The center right shows the seam in the back of the belt where the two pieces of the outer leather are sewn together. The bottom left shows where it was attached to the buckle, also falling apart, and the bottom right is another view of the side, where you can see that three pieces have been glued together to make one.
So, how do you avoid this? Well, the simplest explanation is to make sure when you’re buying a belt that you buy one that is constructed from full-grain vegetable tanned leather and cut from a single piece. The vegetable tanned leather will start out a little stiff, but it softens up incredibly quickly, and there isn’t any glue to come undone, or seams to unravel.
Here’s what to look for:
Seams: Steer clear of any belt where you can see that two pieces of leather have been stitched together, especially by machine. This will eventually fail, and is not easily (or neatly) repaired. This applies to the edge of the belt as well as seams in the back or near the buckle. Snaps or screws near the buckle are a much safer bet, and if there are no seams you’re good to go.
Two types of leather: Look at the front and back of the belt. Are they the same color? The same texture? A lot of dress belts are a glossier leather on the outside and have a softer, lighter colored, leather lining the inside of the belt. These aren’t two sides of the same leather. I promise. If it is obviously the same type of leather front and back (shiny on one side, rough on the other) then you’re a-ok on this one.
Exotic leathers: Lizard, ostrich, snake, and even calfskin, will all be cut out of multiple pieces of leather and stitched together, or glued together. It may even have plastic on the inside to stiffen it. Look for vegetable tanned leather (usually cowhide).
Inspect the edges: Look carefully at the edges of the belt. Can you see where two pieces were glued together? If so, prepare yourself for a belt that will split apart in the near future. If it’s obviously just the side of one piece of leather, you’re set.
So, if you’re looking for a belt that will last, that should give you a head-start on what to search fore if you’re going to the department store, or looking on the internet. If you want some style advice there’s plenty to be had, just don’t forget the tips to make sure that the belt you splurge on is going to last you a lifetime! And, if you’re in the market for a unique one, I have a few handmade leather vegetable tanned belts to get you started.