Life in the Belt Business; A 40 Year Career and Counting...

Posted by Crown Northampton on

After the successful launch of our belt range a couple of weeks ago, we sat down with the mastermind behind getting our belt production up and running, Adrian Howes. He’s been in the trade for over 40 years and with all his knowledge and experience, we consider ourselves really lucky to have him as part of Crown Northampton.

Our business isn’t possible without the skills, expertise and people on our team so we always want to put them in the spotlight. We sat down with Adrian, and quizzed him a little about his life, times and the recent move over to Crown.

Adrian Howes, Belt maker.

So, Adrian, let’s start with the obvious, what was your first job in the trade?
Where did you start in the world of leather goods?
First job in the business, let me think, I was a landscape gardener for the council and then became unemployed for one reason or another. My friend worked at Regent Belt Company near Walgrave, just north of Northampton, about 40 years ago and he got me a job there. I was 24 at the time and I’m nearly 65 now so it was a fair while ago.

There’s not many people that can say they’ve had 40 years in the same trade…
Well, I just like doing what I’m doing really, it’s as simple as that.

What were you hired for as your first job?
At first, I cut webbing material. It comes on a roll, I pulled it to the length and chopped it with a little guillotine. I did that and moved up from there to become supervisor of cutting, y’know, running the whole cutting room. Then they asked me if I fancied trying to make samples. So I used to do that on overtime, then it went from there.

Belt Components

So the sewing and construction of different leather goods, you were learning that at the same time as doing your daily job, cutting the webbing and other components, right?
Yeah, it was all learnt on the job. I’d been there a while before I was made Supervisor of Cutting so obviously by then I knew how belts and things were made. I’d worked there for years by this point and picked it up around the factory. At the start, if I didn’t know how to do something, my supervisor would do it for me. Then I’d carry on from there. Then I took some stuff to him one day and he said “you’ve seen me do it enough times” so yeah, no formal training. You just pick it up. Each leather’s different. You can teach somebody how to make belts but you can’t really teach them how to make a belt, if you know what I mean? All the leathers are all different, some are thin, some are thick, you just have to do it. Bit of trial and error.

Belt making, a bit of trial of error.

Any family in the leather trade?
Ah, loads of family. It’s Northampton, isn’t it? Back in the day everybody worked in the boot and shoe business.

Boot and shoe business indeed, you’re sort of in that part of the business even more now, how are you finding working at Crown?
Never worked anywhere like it in my life. I quite like working here. I like the way Chris does things, he’s not your average guy. Most of the leathers I’m using now, I’ve never used before. The Shell Cordovan for instance, £200 a skin! What I really love is cutting it and knowing you’ve only got one chance to get it right.

Are you doing stock or is it made-to-order like the sneakers?
Well, I’ve got 30 belts to do for next week on my job sheet today for Crown customers. We’re not running production for large quantities of stock but we prep the leather at the longest length and then we can cut it down to the right length when we get the order, so they are made-to-order like the sneakers, we can just do a bit more prep work. I’ve not really worked like this before but it makes sense given the leathers we’re using.

How do you think the leather working industry is looking today compared to in the past?
It’s dying, isn’t it? Crafts are dying out and not many youngsters are going into the boot and shoe trade. Back in the day, you could leave school, get a job in a factory and if you didn’t like it, you could walk out and get another job in another factory by the afternoon. My brother did that. Obviously, I’m going back 20-30 years or more. There was just such a demand but Crown is unusual, seems to be the only place that’s growing now.

Worst and favourite leathers to work with?
Well now I would say the worst is the kudu leather we’ve done recently.

Oh yeah, the Naked Kudu from Steads? Why would you say that’s the ‘worst’?
All the marks on it… It’s nice leather, I like it when you’ve finished the belt but when you’ve got the whole skin there, you’re just looking at it thinking “oh dear.” It’s hard to get regular pattern marks across the length of the belt. Or if I had to pick a second leather that’s tricky, hair-on leathers, they’re always a nightmare. Difficult to get a nice edge on it, you’re always tempted to try and trim it, then you end up having to hoover everywhere afterwards. I haven’t really got a favourite though… Maybe English bridle leathers? They’re nice.

Favourite bit of machinery?
Machines are an interesting one, Dave, who I work with, his favourite is the sewing machine, he was a factory mechanic so he has a way with them. No two sewing machines are the same. The older machines are easier to use. Don’t know if I have a favourite… The splitters make life so much easier, you put a bit of leather through and it makes it thinner and completely uniform and that’s so hard to do by hand. The spiral cutter is great too, so difficult to describe but they are a great thing to see working. If the plaited belts we’re making take off then we’re hoping that we can get one in here. There are new machines now where you stick a piece of leather in one end and then a belt comes out the other but they’re not a lot of fun and if it breaks then production is really held up, we like to stick to the machines we know.

Braided belts, possibly on the horizon...

Talking of leather goods, it may seem petty, but do you have a favourite item that you like to make?
Not really, hang on… (Adrian then went to rummage around in some boxes in the corner of the workshop and returned with some leather satchel bags) These bags were nice, I forgot I gave Chris the rest of these.

What’s the story behind the bags then?
They were samples for a shop down in London, they got in touch about making samples and I said I’d have a look at it, made these up for them, but they never got back to me which was a shame but I’ve given these designs to Chris now.

What’s the most unusual or strangest thing you’ve ever made?
Well, we’ve made some stuff for lingerie brands, it wasn’t kinky stuff though! Also some cuffs and chokers for the goth-type crowd. First thing I made after coming back from covid lockdown was a black leather thong, they did quite well too. We got an order for a few hundred or so of them.

Right, nothing kinky Aidy, if you say so! Back to the products and production. What’s your personal opinion on the product we’re making now? Do you wear many belts? Big fan of a nice belt?
I think I own a few but not many… I have one I wear for work which I made, of course. I have a tan, a brown and a black for trousers. And a couple for jeans, that’s all the belts I wear. Got boxes of them I’m trying to sell though!

Is there something that you want to make that you haven’t yet? What do you really like making?
We’re looking at making a little shoe polish case at the moment. There’s so many things we could make though, key holders, different wallet designs, coin pouches, keyrings. I recently went to Yarmouth on holiday and took some stuff with me; a man down there saw me messing around with some leather keyrings and he really liked them and ordered some for his shop, you never know what might take people’s fancy.

Horween Bourbon Floral Shell Cordovan Belts

We’ve had you sampling our Shell Cordovan Floral Belt design lately for a limited edition release, what do you make of those?
Love it, I’ve never used Shell Cordovan before. I can’t believe how expensive it is and it takes six months to make! I never knew it came from a horse’s arse either until I started here at Crown. You never stop learning and I think these belts are a little bit special.

Adrian, on that note we better let you get on with some work, thanks for taking the time to answer all our questions and we look forward to seeing where we’re headed next when it comes to the wonderful world of small leather goods and belts.

Shop the Crown Northampton belts collection produced by the affable Adrian here.

And, get your hands on our limited edition Floral Bourbon Shell Cordovan belts here.


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