Finishing a Jacket: Keyhole Buttons and John Reece

The final step in the process for creating my A-1 jacket is the installation of the zippers and/or buttons.  This is the most serious part of the process because the jacket is now at its near completion and the most expensive part of the process if there is some kind of error.  So here is the last and final set of steps before this near perfect beauty is completed.  The button hole.  An A-1 was mostly produced before the common use of the zipper.  This required the creation of either the more traditional European style welt button hole, a sort of slit with two welts like flaps, or a keyhole button.  The keyhole button is the most authentic North American option.  And the button hole is quite beautiful to look at.  There is a storied history to the keyhole button, one that starts in Quebec, Canada.

reece 101 gimped button hole

Perfect vintage gimped button hole

Born in Stanstead, Quebec in 1853, John Reece was a descendant of Welsh immigrants to the region.  Excelling in the newly emerging service of fixing the rapidly spreading sewing machine, Reece took his mechanical skills and invented the first Automatic Buttonhole machine.  This launched Reece Company which managed to continue in business for well past 100 years. I have pictures of some of the early machines and the patents here.  Suffice to say, Mr. Reece’s machines became the standard for leather jacket gimped keyhole buttons.  A gimp is a thread that runs around the keyhole shaped button and is sewn down.  On my jackets this risky business of putting in these keyholes at the end of the jackets production bears the ultimate fruit of authenticity.  It is always stressful, it almost always works … very occasionally it doesn’t and then I have an aneurysm!





Making a Heron A-1: Sewing the Body, Sleeves and Collar


Once a jacket has been cut and all the pieces checked for quality, the assemblage of the body can commence.  Typically the seam allowance for a leather jacket is 3/8ths; this helps save on very expensive leather wastage.   Our jackets are sewn with two types of thread.  The inner seams are synthetic for strength and the top stitching is done in cotton thread for both beauty and authenticity.  As a jacket wears the cotton thread tends to protect the leather from wear and tear.  The strain on the stitch holes can lead to a sawing effect with nylon thread so rather than experience that kind of wear over time the more authentic cotton thread which was used in the 1930s and 1940s is preferred.  Thread gauge and stitch counts are maintained to the original jackets of the 1930s. We had to overcome many technical difficulties in order to use cotton.  The main one being that the sewing has to be slowed down in order to not constantly break the thread as the needle penetrates the very tough beautiful horsehides.

Closeup of Capeskin seams on a Heron jacket

Closeup of Capeskin seams on a Heron jacket

When sewing, the body is sewn first separate from the sleeves and the collar.  Any external hard wear and straps like the nickel d-rings are attached to the body of the jacket.  Inner seams are sewn, first maintaining the seam allowance and then the top stitching is applied to finish the seam.  We keep our top stitching accurate to the widths of the original jackets.  In order to maintain flat seams and smooth stitching, seams need to be tamped or hammered as the sewing progresses.  As well anywhere where there are multiple folds and seams that are joined, the seam allowance needs to be cut away and often edges get skived down.  Skiving is a process of shaving down the leather in order to minimize the thickness.  As typical in the shoe industry, jackets made with real horsehide leather would be too thick on seams where leather can be folded over up to 8 times.  8 times of 1.1 mm leather makes for an almost 1 cm thick seam to top stitch over.  High quality sewing leads to very nice flat seams on these joins. This takes time and the sewing techniques of very skilled craftspeople.

Whenever pieces of the body are joined together, we finish each seam with a knot.  Few manufacturers would take the extra time to do

this.  By hand knotting the seam the likelihood of ever coming unstitched is minimized and creates an extra strong seam!


Back to Manufacturing: Making a Heron A-1

I am back in the shop working on my first serious order of jackets.  It seems like it has been forever since we have put needle to horsehide.  My favourite design often seems simple to make and given todays standards of cheap and simple imported jackets I thought it might be insightful to explain and show off why our jackets are so superior to a run of the mill imported jacket.  Each one of our A-1 Heron jackets is hand cut.  They have to be!  Because the hides are tanned in a traditional manner using vegetable tanning.  The hides have their own unique character.  When cutting a jacket, hides have to be matched for character, grain and thickness.  The leather is soaked for 3 months in a bark solution.  This makes for an incredibly beautiful long lasting leather that when milled really shows off the character of the animal it came from.  That character demands hand selection and cutting.


The first steps involve cutting the leather by laying the pattern out on a skin,  recording the size of the skin and minimizing the wastage of the leather.  Pieces are laid out and weighted down so that they don’t move when the skilled hands of the cutter follow around the pattern.  The cutter needs a steady hand in order not to “shave off” any of the pattern.  This could alter the actual pattern over time!


Each type of leather has to be separated in the case of a jacket requiring more than one type of leather.  When manufacturing you are ultimately trying to save time and wastage of materials, and leather is expensive!

Once each piece of horsehide is cut and notched and marked they go into a container holding all the pieces, the liner pieces, the hardware including zippers, buttons labels and the order sheet.  This was as each individual jacket is sewn any special instructions and all the parts are available and in one place.  In order to make a perfect jacket sometimes the pattern needs to be customized for the individual buying the jacket.