An ode to the stitching horse, a tool we use every day making genuine leather belts
Like our leather belts, some tools are built to last
Some things were made to last forever, and this time we’re not exactly talking about premium leather. We devoted this blog to the faithful stitching horse we use to assemble our fine leather belts.
Duvall Leatherwork owner and master craftsman Nick Duvall picked up the antique tool at an auction in New York years ago. It’s earned a permanent place in our repertoire of tools.
It’s weathered and worn, and shows signs that it’s been through some serious repair, like, a very long time ago. The legs appear to have been replaced with wagon wheel spokes.
We replaced some hardware, but otherwise, most of the original pieces remain.
It’s old and it creaks and it’s probably opened and clamped shut its jaws 100,000 times, but every time, it performs as intended, and that’s what we love about it.
So what’s a stitching horse?
The stitching horse gives you an extra hand with super strength.
Modern designs like the one we use were patented in the 1870s. Bridle makers used them. We use them to make belts, and other items that include small pieces and detailed stitching.
Its clamp holds leather pieces exactly where you want them. That’s especially useful when we’re crafting belts. The stiff leather only a few fingers wide needs to be held firmly in place.
The name fits appropriately. You straddle the seat like a horse. You also kick a pedal to engage the clamp, kind of like a stirrup.
Making quality leather belts
One gray Friday morning, while the Duvall Leatherwork shop starts to come alive, craftsman Nathan Matusek sits perched over the stitching horse clamp. He’s crafting Upland belts to make that day – three black, six Havana (fun fact: the Upland and Metro belts are by far the most popular leather belts at Duvall).
Jonathan Williams, shop manager, is making repairs on an old leather tool belt for a client. This thing clearly sees some heavy use. It’s nail pouches and tool loops are smooth and worn. The belt is scratched and nicked all over. We didn’t make this belt; we’re just fixing it. But that’s what we love about quality leather goods. You don’t just throw them away when they eventually fail.
You fix them (properly, with the right tools and materials) and go right back to using them as they were meant to be used.
Making premium belts starts with the finest leather. We use luxurious bridle leather from Hermann Oak Leather Co. in St. Louis to make our authentic leather belts.
First, Nathan cuts each one to size, and punches holes for the belt buckle. The leather near the belt buckle, where the end folds back on itself, needs to be thinned, so he uses a skiving knife to shave it down.
He uses a pricking iron, a punch with tiny teeth, to mark the spots for threading. Sewing leather isn’t like sewing cloth. You could never punch a needle through with your bare hands, so you need to first mark the spots. Pricking irons are numbered by how many holes per inch they make. For example a No. 6 iron makes six holes per inch. But our bridle leather is thick, and it’s not very pliable (how could it be? It’s never been worn. It’s up to you to break it in!), so we use an awl to make the holes deeper and wider before they’re finally ready for stitching.
The Duvall Leatherwork stamp comes last
Clamped firmly in place, Nathan uses a harness stitch – two needles bringing a single piece of heavy, waxed nylon thread back and forth across itself – to firmly secure the folded leather around the belt buckle. The clamp jaw squeaks and creaks tight against the leather belt, like pieces of a saddle rubbing against each other on a slow ride through the hills. Maybe that’s another reason they call it a stitching horse.
When the belt is securely assembled, it needs an inspection. Jonathan takes a look at Nathan’s work and clears him to finish the job. The craftsman pulls down hard on a press handle, forcing the Duvall Leatherwork name into the leather just below the belt buckle. It’s our way of marking a complete and properly built leather belt, and it reminds you that you’ve invested in the best every time you put it on.