Cordovan Horsehide: The Best of Japan and Himel Bros.

horsehide

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!

 


Finishing a Jacket: Hand Hammered Rivits, Zippers and Bits

Now the last bunch of steps to making a leather jacket are the most complex.  Not because they involve a lot of stitching but because they require a lot of finesse.  The more time spent on a jacket and the farther along that you get, the more dangerous the cost of a mistake.  With leather there are few second chances.  Unlike fabric, any holes sewn in leather cannot be undone.  A very skilled tailor can often resew in the holes previously made but the reality of leather jacket production means that any errors are difficult to undo.

himel bros d pocket jacket

Hand gluing and tamping seam folds

Pile of Avros with leather swatches and liners

Pile of Avros with leather swatches and liners

horsehide leather

Himel Bros options

 

 

 

 

 

Attaching the sleeves requires a very strong hand.  This horsehide is tough, and the tougher the leather the harder to manipulate the sewing.  Once the sleeve is attached allowing for the seam allowance the leather needs to be notched.  In order to turn out the sleeve and top stitch it, the notches allow the easy turning and rotation of the sleeve and the nice flat arm hang.  It requires constant awareness and attention to not make any mistakes and ruin a nearly finished garment.

Avro D Pocket Horsehide leather jacket

D Pocket on an Avro being finished by hand with spot work

Avro D Pocket Horsehide leather jacket

D-Pocket horsehide pull tabs

gromit zipper 1930s heron himel jacket

Grommit zipper installed with hand tapped rivets

Avro D Pocket Horsehide leather jacket

Hand installing pulltabs on the Avro D-Pocket jacket

1930s Rivets Avro Jacket

Avro gun pocket re-enforced rivets

Avro Pull Tab Horsehide Jacket

Hand Punching holes into an Avro Pull Tab

Avro horsehide jacket

Hand punching holes for spot work

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The collar must be attached the right way round.  There are many types of collars but the two typical ones for a jacket are the stand-up collar and the turndown collar.  This jacket typically has a turndown collar.  That means that the collar should be attached with the top stitching showing when the collar is folded over.  I had no idea there were so many different collar types when I researched it.   For our jackets, turndown collars are typical.

prongs spot work avro horsehide jacket

Hand turning the prongs for the pull tabs on an Avro

d pocket skiving gluing

Hand skiving and gluing seams on a d-pocket jacket

Avro horsehide jacket

Welted tobacco pocket on the Avro D Pocket, hand skived and glued seams

 

 

 

 

 

The really hard parts after completing the sewing of the leather are the installations of the linings, zippers and snaps.  All of these require super careful placement in order that the jacket fits nicely.  The two sides of a zipper need to be level, button holes must be sewn in on a completed jacket, snaps for collars need to be adjusting because real leather expands and contracts when sewn and adjustments have to be made at the end. It is a very difficult and stressful process!  If the liner isn’t sewn in tight enough it will hang down past the leather of the jacket.  If it is too tight it risks tearing or limiting the mobility of these tight fitted styles.  A 1930s A-1 may appear to have a simple design but in reality the techniques are very advanced working with the best materials.