Going well for leather
How do you keep your leather kit in top condition? A range of experts provide the answers
Rosie Macdonald asks the experts how to keep leather in top condition
Leather sporting kit gets a rough ride. All the elements – rain, mud, sun, sweat, blood and tears – are thrown at it and yet it is expected to survive. Leather also gets a raw deal in the word associations stakes: one says leather, another says Fifty Shades. The sporting world probably houses more leather than the average fetish club but do we look after it as well? How do we get value for money, ensuring our muchloved pieces last as long as we do?
Frances Roche, master saddler for The Royal Mews, maintains all the ceremonial state harness and saddlery. She is also past president of the Society of Master Saddlers and is a member of the Worshipful Company of Saddlers. Roche has a great depth of knowledge and experience: “There are many leather-care products on the market, full of alcohol, that are bad for the leather. People must really steer away from those if they want their items to last.”
Negotiating the field of products available can often be confusing; invest in an expensive pair of boots and one is then encouraged to purchase the matching and equally expensive “care products”. Roche says, “The best way is to keep things simple and natural. There is a lot of nonsense from companies saying you must use our product but the most important point with any product is it should always be used sparingly,” she continues. “Many people definitely put too much oil on their leather kit. If you find the oil hasn’t soaked in, wipe it off. If it hasn’t soaked in it’s because the leather doesn’t need it.
“Some new leathers have a high grease content and do not need treating. Don’t worry if they have a whitish sheen on the surface, this will buff off with a soft cloth,” Roche explains. “For example, if your bridle leather is stiff, apply a light coat of goodquality leather dressing or oil to the under side and allow it to take in.” But, she says, “Use only dressings or oil with natural ingredients – avoid any that contain chemicals. Check the ingredients label; if it isn’t clear what’s in there, have a good sniff. You should be able to tell if it contains chemicals.”
When the oil has soaked in, Roche suggests applying a good leather balsam or saddle soap made from natural products, such as tallow, lanolin and beeswax.
“Saddle soap is a bit of a strange name,” says Roche. “It suggests it’s for cleaning when actually most saddle soaps are applied after you have rinsed. It’s more of a conditioner than a soap and is buffed up afterwards.”
To clean a really greasy or heavily soiled bridle, Roche suggests adding a tablespoon of washing-soda crystals to the water. “This helps enormously and won’t damage the leather, but avoid adding it to the water every time you clean. Plain water is usually sufficient. A small amount of good old washing-up liquid in the water instead of soda crystals would also be fine.”
As with all leather when wet, particularly when rain soaked, it needs to dry slowly and naturally. Roche stresses, “Do not be tempted to place it near a heater to speed up the drying process. This will only make it hard and brittle and you may struggle to revive it.”
Once the leather is clean and dry, Roche instructs to apply a saddle soap or leather balsam sparingly before buffing up with a soft rag. “Apply any dressing sparingly and use your initiative. A lot of people think it is a good thing for leather to be very soft but for all saddlery items and many pieces of sporting kit, too, it should be supple and pliable but still firm and soft.” Roche’s three favourite products have all been around for a while: Brecknell Turner Saddle Soap, Carr & Day & Martin Belvoir Leather Balsam and J & E Sedgwick & Co’s Leathercare Product. Use these and you really can’t go wrong.
Corporal of Horse Sam Belasco is responsible for maintaining and fitting every element of both the horses’ and the soldiers’ uniforms in the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment. Each calvary black – and there are approximately 250 of them – has its own bespoke fitted kit. That is a lot of leather to keep in good condition, so tricks of the trade are essential. “There is a huge emphasis on kit cleaning in the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment. The troopers who attend The Queen’s Life Guard are scored on their cleanliness, the smartest being rewarded with the best reliefs. There is a huge amount of self pride,” explains Belasco. “Before we start cleaning our kit all the sweat has to be completely removed, especially horse sweat – it goes grey if you polish over the top as the salts from it come through. The best way to remove the sweat is using a tin lid and scraping if off. Our leather is hard and this works very well.”
black art of experience
As a Master Saddler, Belasco has been privileged to build an almost black art of handed-down experience, which only certain people would truly understand. He explains: “It’s one of the things we are often asked. It’s something you just get, like the fact that each piece of leather is different, the same as the human skin. Some human skin is oily, some dry, and leather is very much the same in my opinion. Each piece takes stuff differently,” he continues.
“Sweat can also be removed with lukewarm water on a damp sponge. Never,
Some human skin is oily, some dry, and leather is very much the same
however dirty, be tempted to soak the leather. Then, lag each piece up with lots of polish – you can use the tin lid again to rub the polish in and then allow this to dry naturally; the leather will absorb the polish.”
This applies to bridles, saddles, girths, boots and some other sporting equipment. “When you return to your kit, any polish left on can then be polished to a nice deep shine with a good stiff brush.”
Belasco warns against quick methods. “The very worst thing you can use on any leather kit is the types of magic sponges that promise a quick shine. They are full of chemicals. Nothing beats a good tin of normal Kiwi polish, obviously issued in big tins to us,” he laughs.
Belasco offers an excellent tip for removing surface smear on leather, ensuring that our kit looks as spectacular as that of the Household Cavalry. “Nylon,” he explains. “That’s basically ladies’ tights. We chop the legs off and roll the tights into a ball. It’s an effective way of cutting through any smears and leaves a good shine.” An excellent way to put all those tights with holes in at the back of the drawer to good use.
For those lucky enough to inherit sporting kit at various stages of the ageing process – such as those wonderful old large cartridge bags – then help is at hand to ensure there is life in the old bag yet. Dedicated collector Tim Bent has an insatiable thirst for vintage luggage and sporting goods, which led him to set up his company, Bentleys, on Lower Sloane Street, London. He is regularly presented with seriously seductive items – such as a rare Dunhill giant table lighter covered with shagreen, perfect for a lively shoot dinner, and a Boss & Co cartridge bag.
Bent says, “If the leather is in good condition but in need of a feed and polish, I would suggest removing any dirt or dust first with a duster. Any dirty marks can be removed with a slightly damp but not wet cloth. Then allow the item to dry naturally away from direct heat. I would suggest using Lord Sheraton’s Leather Balsam.”
He agrees with the previous advice given. “As with all polishing, use the balsam sparingly and always test a discrete area first. It’s better to build up layers of polish than overdo it. The treatment will only darken the leather after all.”
Bent’s knowledge flows: “Allow it to dry and then buff with a lint-free cloth – old cotton shirts are perfect as a pad of fibre; it cuts through the polish and produces a crisp shine.” And, “there’s no substitute for good old elbow grease,” he smiles, something we all know in our hearts but try to ignore. “The friction and heat is all that is needed to get the best depth of shine and enhance the patina.”
For any leather that is dry or rusty, where the surface is turning to red powder, then a dose of Renapur Leather Balsam may work. Bent says: “It’s much harder to polish this type of surface. The balsam may not redeem the leather but it could prevent it deteriorating further. Just proceed with caution and don’t be tempted in any way to overfeed. I would also test a small area prior to application.”
the racing world
Back in the 1970s, there were about 650 horses in training in Newmarket, Suffolk – now there are almost 3,000. Combine this with the huge shooting and hunting fraternity across East Anglia and it’s no wonder that experts in this field are in great demand to cope with the vast amounts of leatherwork. Expertise and advice is on hand at Gibson Saddlers in Newmarket. Gibson’s quality and attention to detail earned the company the Royal Warrant in 1932 and it is presently the supplier of racing colours to HM The Queen. Away from the main store, in the rabbit warren of workshops behind, one will find skilled craftsmen using old-fashioned tools to produced elegant modern saddles and leather items from the finest English leather. They are happy to make and repair a variety of leather goods and advise on its care but, as repairer Val Ryan says, “It’s all down to commonsense, particularly in the racing world where potentially it’s a life or death situation,” he continues. “All kit, whatever form it takes, needs a regular MOT. Some of our customers are fastidious, others not so and we are here to help.” And help they do. Last year they produced a handmade pair of leather chaps with a silver, snakeskin-effect finish for a female stripper. I refrained from asking the best way to look after these and decided to leave it to my imagination.
Whether our leather goods are featuring in private spin-offs of Fifty Shades of Grey or providing years of pleasure in the sporting fields, for longevity we must keep its care simple and natural, using good old commonsense and God’s natural ingredients.
Left: there are 250 cavalry blacks – each with its own bespoke leather kit that needs caring for Above: elbow grease is still the top ingredient
Left: the interior at Bentleys in Lower Sloane Street, where founder Tim Bent keeps antique English leather items in top condition for sale. Above: hand-crafting a leather saddle at Gibson Saddlers in Newmarket