All well-designed, and well-made things, should do their job quietly and confidently. They shouldn’t make their presence known until you ask it of them. The famous designer Dieter Rams has often likened good product design to a good English butler.
“...a good product should be like a good English butler. They're there for you when you need them, but in the background at all other times.”
30 Minutes With Dieter Rams, dwell.com, 18 May 2011
A belt is no different. If anything a belt, like anything worn close to the body, should far exceed this maxim. Who wants painful reminders that they’re wearing a belt, or shoes, or an ill-fitting shirt? Who wants to feel them dig into their skin as they go about their day?
Image 1. A selection of some of my belts. Top to bottom:
a. New and unused McNicol & Noble 32mm belt - untouched and straight as an arrow;
b. The 3rd belt I made for myself, single line of hand-stitching, and first ever test of my stitching theory. Worn almost constantly for about 7 years - lots of curve, hugs me like my 18mo daughter;
c. Handmade belt bought in Mexico, worn for about 3 years - lots of curve, hugs me like my wife;
d. A webbing belt I wore for about 5 years travelling, hiking, and climbing - a small amount of curve;
e. Another belt from Mexico, sadly made from fake suede - not much curve.
I made my first leather belt in 2011. Since then I’ve made countless belts for other people, so naturally over these last ten years I have learned quite a lot about belts. I know what you’re thinking; yes, belts have been around a long time, almost as long as fig-leaf clothing. So, how much more thought really needs to be put into a belt? Looking back over the decade of my career as a professional designer, I realise that I have approached every single design project with the same degree of curiosity, dedication, and attention to detail. “Who is this for? How will they be using it? Why do they want or need this thing? Is it a replacement for an old thing? Does the old thing not work anymore? Why not? What can I do to make sure this thing is the best thing they’ve ever owned?”
Image 2. An illustration emphasising some different body shapes. Note that the hips, where the belt sits, is never vertical, meaning the belt follows a conical contour.
Let me tell you what I’ve learned about belts: A belt must be able to follow a curve, not a straight line. Easier said than done! Sure it is easy enough if you are happy using a rope for a belt, just don’t expect it to be comfortable. But a belt? Not so fast smarty pants! A belt is flat, like a ribbon. Try tying a ribbon around a traffic cone. While one edge of the ribbon touches the cone the other edge will be flapping around in the breeze. If you try tightening the ribbon so that the loose edge comes into contact with the cone, then the first edge will start cutting into the cone. Try it.
Image 3. Try wrapping a ribbon around a traffic cone. You will find that one edge doesn’t contact the cone (A). If you tighten the ribbon so that it does make contact with the cone then the cone will become distorted and possibly cry out in pain (B).
So, we don’t want a woven textile belt because it acts like a ribbon and digs in rather than curves to the shape of our bodies. Note my old textile belt shown above (image 1d) has very little curve? This shows how unforgiving they can be. If you swap that ribbon for flat elastic then the first edge will stretch and allow the second edge to come into contact. However if the elastic is strong then it will start to bite into you after a while. And if it is soft elastic then there might be some embarrassing occasions where gravity wins the pants tug-o-war. So, elastic is not great either.
Image 4. A line on a cone, when unwrapped, forms a curve, not a straight line. So it follows that a well-fitting belt needs to be able to follow a curve, not a straight line. A single stitching line allows this curve, and still prevents unwanted leather stretch.
Leather? Now here’s a belt material we can really get behind. After some use it will happily curve to our body shape, and retain that shape for as long as it’s our belt. And then if you, like my father once did, pass your belt on to the next generation, it will reshape to the new custodian. One drawback of leather is it can stretch over time. It’s only very slight, but it might mean after several years you start running out of holes.
Image 5. Close up of two belts which don't follow a curve.
Top: Textile webbing belt. You can see the ripples where it has tried to curve to my body shape, and instead it has collapsed. It took me a long time to realise why it was uncomfortable on long walks.
Bottom: Fake suede belt. The suede has started to wear away on the top after only a few times wearing it. This highlights the pressure build up from being unable to curve, and this is due to the top and bottom stitching as well as it being a coated textile.
So, how do we stop leather from stretching? We put some stitching into it. The stitching will prevent excess elongation as the thread doesn’t like to stretch. Now, the big problem with most belts is they have edge-stitching which runs around the full perimeter of the belt. Since stitching doesn’t like to stretch, perimeter stitching makes the belt act like a ribbon (see above for why this is undesirable!) Other methods of belt-making include gluing a strip of canvas between two thin strips of leather, in a sort of sandwich, and then perimeter stitching it. But this takes us back to the ribbon problem again. Now if we put a single stitch line along the belt then the leather won't stretch, yet it can curve as there's no second stitch opposing it.
Image 6. Close up of the spinal section of each belt. It is clear where the belts have developed a curve, and which belts have struggled developing this curve. The McNicol & Noble belt at the top has never been used.
In conclusion, your body is more like a cone than a cylinder. If your belt can’t follow a curve then it will be uncomfortable to wear for any duration. A single stitch line allows the belt to curve to the shape of your body, and prevents unwanted stretch.