What a $1,500 Leather Jacket Restoration Looks Like

  • Cory Bernatt runs the leather-repair shop The Sandalman Leathercare in Toronto.
  • He shows us how he restores a worn-out horsehide jacket from the 1950s.
  • This includes replacing the damaged parts and reconditioning the leather for two weeks.

Following is a transcript of the video.

Cory Bernatt: I’m Cory Bernatt, and I run the business called First Aid for Leather by Sandalman in Toronto, Canada. I’m going to be taking you through a restoration process of a 70-year-old horsehide leather jacket. I believe the jacket was worth about $100 70 years ago, and it’s probably worth about $1,500 today. It would probably be about a $1,500 restoration. This is a jacket that was made out of horsehide, which in the past was something that was quite common. Nowadays, most leather jackets of its type are reproductions made out of cowhide, which is not as strong as horsehide. It’s basically broken down on every aspect. The knit cuffs and waistband. The leather’s completely deteriorated over time, as you can see, the fading and drying out. The collar, which is made from sheepskin, has started to bald and lose hair.

The first thing we have to do is take everything apart. Part of the treatment process is just washing down the surface of the leather with a pH-balanced soap, which is noninvasive. It helps to keep the original colors without stripping any of the pigment from the leather. I’m removing the knit cuff and waistband from the jacket by using a seam ripper to take it off from the edge of where it was sewn. In the case of the knit cuffs, it goes around in a circle, so you basically just pick an area, start with that, and then just go around till you get to the end. If we’re going with the zipper, we would go and start at the top and then move down to the bottom. We do this along all the edges where the material is attached to the leather. Then the lining had to be disassembled. Once the lining is disassembled, then we have to break it into its parts.

Once we’ve disassembled the entire jacket, we have to then repattern by using the original design, because we have to make sure that everything fits back together in exactly the same way as it was made in the first place. The original collar was made out of sheepskin. It is starting to show signs of what I call balding. After so many years of use, you’ll find that the hair starts to disengage from the base material. The first thing that we do is we disassemble it from the original collar, and then we flatten it out to allow us to get an accurate reading on the measurements. And then that gets cut out, so that way we have all of the proper seam allowances to allow for the stitch to go on. I’ve chosen to modernize this design rather than trying to restore it back to its original. It gives more contrast to the brown leather by using the black trim. The fabric on the zipper is black, the knit’s in black, as well as the internal lining is made from a quilted lining made out of black. So everything has a consistency amongst the jacket. Once I take the internal lining out of the jacket, we break it into its various parts. Everything is pressed with an iron to make sure that everything lies flat, and then we make sure that we have enough lining material when we’re cutting it, because if we don’t do this properly then it’ll end up being short. When I’m rebuilding a lining for a jacket, it has no pockets. It’s just a flat piece of material. We then have to create the pocket. In this case, we created a leather-trimmed pocket. We have to cut the leather pieces that are going to be incorporated into the pocket, and it has to be cut and sewn in such a way that when it’s completed, it is a finished pocket. The cuff is made from a combination of cotton and polyester and elastic. So it’s woven together so that it has a nice soft feel and at the same time it has a little bit of elasticity so that it holds on your wrist and on your waistband and keeps the air out. When we’re making measurements, we want to make sure that we make marks on it that are not invasive to the material that can easily be wiped off. I like using a chalkboard char. It easily comes off. That allows us to get accurate patterning and then wipe it off later so it doesn’t leave a mark.

Once we cut the materials, we then have to reassemble everything back to the original design. The toughest part about reconstructing a jacket like this is just making sure that everything fits together exactly as it had begun. We do this one step at a time with each individual aspect of the jacket. The cuffs have to be turned inside out and sewn and then folded over so that it creates the double layer. All of the linings have to be sewn back together. We make notches at various points of the lining so that we know as we’re sewing that we’re sewing it to the right point, so that where the shoulder starts and the side begins, that each of those points are matched in the right way. The waistband has to be put in before the lining is attached, because the lining will then cover up the knit. The knit gets sandwiched between the leather and the lining, so that way if you were to turn it inside out you’d see a nice clean finish.

We do a conditioning treatment with the liquid oil for a week, and then at the end of that process we then move on to the thicker oil. So we’re getting a two-week treatment with two different oils with only a couple of days’ break in between. After 70 years of use, all of the initial essential oils that were part of the leather have all evaporated. What I do when I’m treating the leather is I’m putting back some of those essential oils. You’ll notice also the flexibility of the leather increases, because once the oils get introduced to the leather, everything starts to soften up. All of the fibers inside the leather, everything becomes healthier, darker, more supple.

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