Reece 101 Button Holer: Becoming an Expert

Since I started this project to create beautiful originally crafted leather jackets I have been on a learning curve. I have a great deal of expertise in the generalized knowledge of vintage jackets.  I have seen thousands of jackets, noting cut, leather, labels, manufacturers, stitching techniques, design changes over time, period, uniqueness of the era and all the other factors that make vintage jackets and their constituent companies interesting.  What I had little knowledge of was applied techniques.  By far the hardest part of starting Himel Brothers has been re-learning the old techniques of sewing and tanning and patterning vintage jackets.  I routinely find myself calling the old timers of the schmata business asking for advice.  Everybody over the age of 60 has advice.  As an example, I sat down in an office with Bernie of Cansew who explained to me the subtle and different makeup of cotton thread today vs. the lubricated threads of the 1950s.  He advised me on the various gauges and brands available today vs. the past. He also filled me in on the antisemitism he experienced here in Toronto and how tough it was to get a job outside of the schmata business.   It became clear to me that the mass producers of the day had refined their machines and materials down to an efficient perfection which  delivered the best designs and the best product at the best price.  Today the focus is mostly profit.  That is because the consumer now values price over quality and has lost the education to know the difference.

My operation almost came to a crashing halt this week.  My button hole  contractor called me to let me know her machine could no longer reliably make button holes on my Heron jackets. As I was told many times the Reece 101 needs to be set up just for leather otherwise it would be unreliable.   I was in a quandary.  I had been looking for a Reece 101 button hole machine for almost a year and a half and had been unable to locate a good solid working model.  These machines are very precious.  They make a perfect “gimped” keyholes,  which before its invention had to be done by hand.  Almost every machine in Canada has been exported to China.  Sadly,  almost every clothing factory here in Canada has been shut down.  When closed, factories were  entirely packed onto containers and shipped to China where they re-opened.  This makes finding a good used machine almost impossible and very expensive.  Even if you can find a machine, finding a mechanic who knows how to fix and maintain it is even more difficult as almost everyone has retired.  I spent almost a week calling every used sewing machine company in Canada and the U.S.  I called loads  of elderly Jewish schmata Kings that own warehouses hoping they still had old machines locked in the basement.  After my long hard search I finally found a good machine hiding in a garage in the suburbs  and a mechanic to set it up for leather.  Oh yeah…even if you can find a machine you need to set up the 101 specifically to do leather button holes.  This is why my trusty contractor could no longer do my jackets.   Her machine was set up for cloth and suits…leaving me in a panic.  Thank goodness for my good friend Simon and the mini truck too, because this sucker is heavy!!!


New Designs: Prototyping


I have been sweating away over here in the creative tank so to speak working on 6 new jacket designs.  Many of my jackets are my own interpretations of original work, or simply inspired by the techniques of original work.  On occasion there are original jackets that are so amazing and so perfect that I cannot bear to subtract or add to them in any way.  Every once and a while a piece is so unique, with such a primitive pattern that it is hard not to just pay homage to the design.

My next six jackets will include some “homage” and some not.  I also was getting a lot of heat from Nancy asking when I was going to build a woman’s jacket.  Well…the girl rider is on the way.  I am looking for an appropriately Canadian name for the jacket.  Every name I pick has a reference to something Canadian and in my life.  I believe it is super important to emphasize that the U.S. and Canadian fashion industries have been more or less integrated since the 1880s and that many of the great pieces of clothing and brands had in some part a Canadian influence.  Lightning zipper (the second zipper company) was here in St. Catherines, Ontario and many of the jackets in my collections and Rin Tanaka’s books are in fact Canadian jackets!


When you design a prototype pattern the pattern maker wants a name for the model right away to label the pieces.  Unlike children that wait to be born to be named, my team put pressure on me to get the names to the jackets before I even see a completed sample.  Usually I have one by the time I have finished the drawings, and in some circumstances I honour the original manufacturer if in fact I am copying their jacket.  In the case of this girl jacket I am vexed. I have an idea…it is percolating.  Nancy on the other hand has put in her bid. When I get my first sample made up I might throw it up on the blog and take some suggestions or at least vet the names I have.  I might not if something magical comes to me before month’s end!





Cordovan Horsehide: The Best of Japan and Himel Bros.


Curing horse butts and fronts

The journey of Himel Brothers Leather has been about  learning to make the most amazing accurate jackets possible.  I have travelled  the world looking for the best zippers, leather and parts that exist.  I spent years hunting the internet and carefully examining all the amazing Japanese and North  American brands looking at the plus’ and the minus of each one.  I counted stitches, disassembled jackets and contacted every living person I could track down that had worked in the leather jacket industry.  I was very very surprised  to find that many of the people who had worked for many of the great brands were still alive and well and that many of them were still working in the schmata business.  In my hunt for the perfect leather I spoke with many people who had built some of the earliest leather jackets in North America.  I asked them where they got their leather from, which tanneries,  and what kinds of leather.  Many of them regailed me with great stories and some of them even gave me specifications  right down to formulations for the tannages of the leather.  I spoke with the head tanner of Dominion Tanners now retired in Edmonton.  Wolfgang was the head chemist for one of the biggest tanneries in the world.  Each one was a small step or a clue to unlock the  puzzle of leather.  After reading several books published before 1900 on the art of tanning my email rang with a friendly hello from a stranger.   John Chapman of Goodwear Leather emailed me out of the blue and introduced himself.  Hundreds of hours on the phone later John and I became good friends.  Without people helping me I would have never found my way to Japan.

Nancy and I marvelled at our journey to the tanneries of Southern Japan.  Onto a bullet train we watched in awe as city after city flew past.  Names we had only seen on the news were right there flying by at hundreds of kilometres an hour and when we arrived at our destination.  The openess and generosity of Japanese culture astounded us.  The owner of the tannery picked us up at the train station with an took us on a tour of his town.  He was as proud of his city as he was of his business!

Horsehide tanning is an age old business as horses produce the finest shoe and garment leather in the world.  Horsehide is renowned for its strength and weight, waterproofness and wearability.  There are very few cordovan tanneries left in the world and Japan has some of the finest.  These horse skins are the pride of Europe, imported to Japan specifically for  the tannery.  The tanneries of Japan select the finest best grown and treated horses of Europe where stringent regulations and animal treatment produce well cared for animals.  At the end of the lives they are slaughtered for the food industry and the hides are exported.   When they come in the “green” horsehides are in the salted and preserved stage.  To make cordovan you must first use a cool notched bench to cut the bean shaped butt off from the fronts of the hide.  The butt has the best properties for shoes and the fronts are used for garments. The hides are washed, dehaired and cleaned of fat.  After that cleansing,  each hide goes for a long long bath…months long with agitators soaking in a liquor of bark and water imported from Australia.  This mimosa tannage produces an incredible product  After soaking in the bath skins are carefully sorted, dried and stored for months allowing them to cure and shrink.  This curing is part of what makes a superior hide.  This shrinks the fibres and compresses the skin.  Of course losing 30 percent of that skin by shrinkage is partly what makes the leather a premium product…that and it takes months to make a single hide.  After hides are tanned, stored and shrunk, they are finished.  Finishing involves milling, or tumbling the hides to soften them up, bring out the grain, dying, bating (adding oil or other solutions back into the skin) skiving and sanding, and finally putting finish on the leather.  I buy the best leathers in the world from the last few tanneries that have been open and family run since the war.  This father and son operation is run with the same care and commitment that goes into the production of every Himel Brothers Leather jacket.  Their clients include Goodwear Leathers, The Flathead, Real McCoys, Toys McCoys and Me!