You know how when a magician exposes to the world how other magicians trick people, all of the other magicians get mad at him for spilling the beans? Well, I'm about to spill the beans and ruin it for all of those companies trying to trick you into buying their not so high quality leather. This is not what most companies do, but some. There are lots of good ones out there. You're about to learn what to look for and what to look out for as you shop for your next leather piece. By the way, if I soon die by a chopstick to the neck, you'll know why. I'm a marked man.
If you've ever bought an article of leather and it went from Ferrari to sorry in 4.3 seconds, you're about to understand why. At the same time, learn what we do and what we use to make our designs last longer than you ever will. I've learned what makes a great bag great and what makes a cheap bag cheap and you're about to too. I honestly don't know how any of our pieces can be made better. Here’s some of the knowledge I’ve picked up along the way.
Basically, there are 4 types of leather. Full Grain is the best leather money can buy. Top Grain is pretty good since it still has some of the grain ( read explanation of "Grain") on the top after most of the grain was sanded off to get rid of the blemishes. Genuine Leather comes from the bottom half of the hide and doesn't have any grain. Suede is an example of genuine leather. Bonded Leather is the PT Cruiser of the leather world. It's the dust and shavings of the leather glued and pressed together.
For Ages 6+, Explanation of Full Grain, Top, Genuine and Bonded Leather
No Breakable Parts - A billion dollar submarine with a plastic hatch is soon just a really expensive fish tank. In the same way, a quality leather case with cheap components will soon end up living in the attic. We don't use zippers, latches, metal hinges, buttons, snaps or any other breakable parts. It's not an issue of IF those things break, but when. A luggage repairman once told me that the upper end baggage companies now use a plastic coil zipper instead of metal ones. He said that those are cheaper and easier to repair since you don't have to replace the entire zipper when it breaks, only a section. How thoughtful of them.
Industrial Thread - This is an extremely important part to know about. A big corporation can save tens of thousands a year by skimping on thread (think weakest link). There are three main types of thread. See if you can guess which one Saddleback uses.
Cotton (cost - $1.50/1000 meters) wears away and rots with moisture, sunlight and very low friction.
Nylon ($3/1000m) is a good thread and the industry standard for sewing leather products. A weakness it has is that it's usually made with thousands of very short nylon strands which is why it can rub apart. It also deteriorates with direct sunlight.
Polyester ($10/1000m) thread is used for making airbags, ship sails, hiking boots and other industrial all weather gear. It's about 3 times as expensive as nylon, and 4 times as strong. It's an industrial UV resistant marine grade thread made from several long high-tenacity strands of polyester. There's a reason it's so expensive. Not only do we use this thread, but we use the thickest version we can find.
How Thread is so Key to Making a Quality Bag, Briefcase or Backpack
They can cheat you by using cheap thread or by putting a spool of good thread on top of the machine and filling the bobbin below with thin thread. Let me explain.
You see, a stitch is made when the needle pushes the thread through the leather from above and hooks the thread of the bobbin. So, the stitches that you see are made with good thread and the stitches on the bottom or under the lining are made with cheap thin stuff (weakest link). Besides saving money on thread, they save time, which is money. With thin thread in the bobbin, a large company won't have 40 stitchers stopping an extra 5 times a day for 2 minutes to refill the small bobbin. They can fit at least 3 times as much thin thread in that tiny bobbin as they can thick. So, if you do the math, it's 40 people x 5 times x 2 minutes x 300 days a year x 10 years = 20,000 hours that they have to pay out extra. That's a lot of money. One 1000m spool can sew about 5 duffel bags/briefcases. If a big name company that's in all the stores is making 15,000 bags a year then that's 3000 spools of thread. You do the math. And that's just one bag in a company's line of dozens of products. Thread is a big expense.
If you want to figure out which thread your current bag is made with, try this. Light the end of the thread with a match. If it turns to ash, it's cotton. If it smells like burning hair, it's silk or wool. If it balls up, it's nylon. If it's hard to even melt, then it's the kind we use.
Machinery and Stitching - Only those laser guided computerized machines that sew supple and thin leather make perfect lines. Because Saddleback Leather bags are each individually made by humans and the leather is so thick, the double stitching is sometimes a little bit uneven. Do you know how tough it is to sew through several pieces of thick leather at once? It takes a pair of strong hands and some very heavy duty machinery. These bags aren't perfect and that's what makes them perfect.
Why Sewing Machines are Key to a High Quality, Well Sewn Piece of Leather
Heavy Duty Rivets - It's kind of like killing a fly with a shotgun, but we rivet every point that could possibly develop a weakness and give your grandchildren a headache. The corners and most places where leather joins together, get a well placed stout rivet. Remember, even rocks wear away.
Why Rivets Are a Must in Design of Briefcases, Backpacks and Bags
Pigskin Lining - You'll find that most trendy pretty boy bags are lined with a cute shiny fabric. Once that tears, say goodbye to your pens and loose change. I line all my bags with solid whole pieces of pigskin. Pigskin has the highest tensile strength rating of all leathers (second only to kangaroo). Not only does it help reinforce the bag’s strength and shape, but it’s real soft and helps keep spills on the inside of your bag from staining the outside. You’ll see when you get it.
Insulation - Blue and I drove around Juarez, Mexico for three years in a truck without A/C (avg. summer temperature is 95°). In the morning, I'd pack my Nalgene bottle with ice and then water. If I kept it in my leather bag, the ice would last 4 to 5 hours as opposed to one hour if the bottle were on the seat. Leather is a great insulator for keeping in and out the heat or cold; and how much more so with Saddleback's abnormally thick leather. Below is a small scientific chart measuring the thermal conductivity of various materials. The lower the number, the better it is at insulating.
Thermal conductivity - k - (W/mK)
How Heat Destroys Cameras and Laptops. What to Look for in a Bag at Saddleback
People - The quality of my bags is only as good as the people that make them. That’s why we hire the best stitchers and leather workers and quality control folks we can find. We put a lot of resources into training, and we pay them well so they don’t leave. I also believe it’s really important to get people working in their gifts and enjoying what they do. Some people crave structure in their work life, and some people really do well with creative problem solving. We really try to get to know our people and their unique gifts and get them into places to use their gifts as much as possible.
Who We Hire and Why. A Key to Quality at Saddleback Leather
Multi-Purpose Belts - Some of our designs have removable side belts to securely close your bag or to strap something on. I strap my umbrella and tripod under mine. The straps are made of two long solid pieces of leather sewn back to back. These are very important if you're traveling in places like the subway in New York City or in Guatemala City where the thieves have really quick hands. They'll steal your fillings if you yawn too long. Did I mention that some conveniently double as belts for a size 36 waist? Most belts only have 5 - 6 holes, but ours come with up to 25 holes so can use them for whatever in an emergency. I've also used mine as both a dog collar and leash more than once. Making belts from long strips of leather is expensive because you end up with a lot of small random sized pieces from the hide after cutting the belts. A belt maker in El Paso, Texas showed me how he splices several small leather strips together to make one long belt. Watch out, because it is only a matter of time before that joint shows up. The illustration below shows you something to watch out for so you don't get cheated.
The Design Room is where Quality Starts at Saddleback
Few Seams - I once got a little crocodile to come to the boat and test the strength of my bag. He clamped down and then thrashed and yanked the heck out of it. When he went for a bigger bite, we yanked it out. I was happy to get it back, but disappointed to find that he only scraped it up (I wanted some souvenir bite marks).
Click here to watch crocodile vs. bag. Our bags are tough!
It would've been torn to pieces if it had been made with thinner leather or with lots of seams. We build each Saddleback piece with as few seams as possible. Two or three large pieces of leather sewn together is far stronger than several pieces sewn into a sort of leather quilt. They can cheat you by using a whole bunch of smaller pieces instead of a few big pieces.
It's a sly way of lowering the cost of production and diminishing the quality of the product. A large company can save hundreds of thousands of dollars per year that way.
I bought the duffel bag in these pictures in a pinch. I laughed out loud when I counted how many pieces they used to make it.
Look at the 85 pieces make up the body (Saddleback's leather duffle bag only uses 8), 2 pieces for each handle and 21 pieces make up the shoulder strap. All together they used 117 small pieces to make one duffel bag. Remember, seams will tear before a solid piece of leather will. Having only a few larger pieces with a couple of seams costs us more, but it's one more way that we separate ourselves from the masses.
Hidden Nylon Reinforcing Straps - A German leather craftsman taught me a great trick. He sews a nylon strap into all of the parts of his horse equipment that get stress. Since nylon doesn't stretch, neither will the leather. We put tough nylon strips inside the handle and where it attaches to the bag; also inside the center strap where it buckles, and in the side pieces where the shoulder strap attaches. All areas that would normally stretch now have a hidden nylon strap permanently sewn in.
Hardware - All the hardware is nickel plated metal normally used for dog collars and horse tack. The d-rings are there for tying on umbrellas, jackets etc. and to act as buffers between the ground and the bag. (Note: these d-rings are very strong and the leather holding them on is too, but not meant to attach the shoulder strap to. There is a d-ring on either side specially engineered to sustain the weight of the shoulder straps). On a hitchhiking/surfing trip through the jungles and along the beaches of far southern Mexico, I tied my hammock to one side of my bag, a thin serape blanket to the other and my flippers to the bottom.
Converts to Backpack - I've used my bag quite a bit as a backpack. Fully loaded on an especially long trip through Poland, Croatia etc. I used it comfortably everyday. The shoulder strap detaches from the sides and re-attaches to make it into a backpack. It also has two shoulder pads so as to be more comfortable.
I am 6'3" and 215 lbs. and it fits me just fine, but may not fit you. My brother-in-law, Tim, works for Cisco Systems and uses his daily as a backpack over just one shoulder. A while back, I was on a small island off the coast of Panama and was making my way to a fabled surf spot called Wizard Beach, only accessible by foot. The boat dropped me off and I started up the trail (my little brother was already there waiting for me with the board), but little did I know that the 25 minute hike was all mud, slicker than snot. In order to concentrate on not slipping, I turned my bag into a backpack and only fell once. It is a real convenient feature. As it turned out, the waves were way too big that day, so we didn't surf.
Click here to see a video from Jamaica as Lammy converts the bag to a backpack.
False Bottoms - I usually carry a copy of my passport and some extra cash in there. Chances are, someone is going to try to steal your bag, not the contents, but at least they won't get the satisfaction of spending your money. They'll never find it. Speaking of thieves, free helpful hint: Always carry a 6-pack of Coca Cola while driving in Latin America. Pop one for yourself and then offer one to the cop when he first approaches and he should let you go without asking for a bribe. The culture teaches that it's impolite to refuse a gift. If he doesn't accept it, you're toast. Negotiate your way down to $5 and go on your way.
Shoulder Straps - Comfortable and adjustable solid pieces of leather with suede backing and real tough swiveling clips on the ends from Spain. The clips are normally used for horse tack. They detach quickly to make into a backpack and also to attach the bag to things. I connect the bag strap through my guitar case handle and attach it to the bed of my truck so no one will snatch it out when I'm stopped at a light.
Tanning Process - Saddleback's great leather is a huge part of our success. You really need to read this part. See pictures of what bad leather looks like and check out the fun, short and simple explanation of how leather is tanned.
Watch out for leather that isn't tanned long enough; it looks nice on the shelf, but it'll crack and tear in no time. Basically, all of the natural oils and preservatives are extracted from the hide and the tannery replenishes them by tumbling the skin in a big drum for hours and hours. Some tanneries only tumble the leather long enough to coat the outer layer and therefore the inner part never gets the oils and preservatives it needs.