What’s it worth (part 1)?

I’m writing this post on “Black Friday”, the all-important shopping day that seems to have surpassed Thanksgiving Day in importance to many people. This year, for the first time, many major stores opened on Thanksgiving to give shoppers a chance to get their good deals a few hours earlier. I read about people who camped out for a few nights at Best Buy to get good deals on electronics, apparently missing Thanksgiving dinner all together.

I prefer the alternative “Buy Nothing Day” today, and I spent the day with my family hiking on the La Chua trail in Gainesville to see alligators, many birds, and wild horses on a beautiful prairie. It was lovely!

Black Friday has bargains on computers, tablets, e-gadgets, shoes, clothes, belts, and toys. I’ve seen belts on sale at several stores that cost much less than the leather that I use for my belts. Many of these belts at big box stores look horrible and wear out quickly, but they are cheap!

Details of  braided 20 strand 1.5" belt. My cost for the kangaroo leather is about $60.

Details of braided 20 strand 1.5″ belt. My cost for the kangaroo leather is about $60.

I sell a lot (i.e. maybe 20/year) of belts, and people almost always comment about how much they love them. I make each one individually and size them to fit a specific buckle and to fit each person’s waist exactly right. I often get to know the people who order my belts (and other leather goods). It is a satisfying relationship that enriches both me and the person buying the belt.

The most common feedback I get from my leather work is 1) “it is really beautiful” and 2) “it is really expensive”

Basic belt made for a customer's buckle set.

Basic belt made for a customer’s buckle set.

A basic belt that I make costs me about $20 in materials. It takes somewhere between 1-2 hours to make, including the time to:

          • straighten the hide
          • cut the top and lining pieces
          • if necessary, dye the top piece
          • layout and fit the buckle
          • glue the top and lining together
          • sew the belt
          • trim the lining
          • round the edges
          • dye and rub the edges
          • set the snaps
          • oil the belt (2-3 times)
          • condition the belt
          • cut the slot for the buckle
          • set the snaps and finish the buckle end
          • measure the exact finish length
          • layout the holes with the center hole to exactly fit the customer’s waist
          • punch out the holes.
          • voila!

And sometimes I mess up and need to start again… I sell a basic belt in the Artisans’ Guild Gallery for $70, 35% of which goes to support the cooperative and 65% goes to me. It is a lot more expensive than a $12 belt at Walmart.

I’ve also trained for a long time to make a nice belt:

And I also own thousands of dollars in tools and benches and a sewing machine that are used to make a nice belt.

4 different braids. Left to right: 10 strand lazy man, 14 strand, 20 strand, 21 strand double.

4 different braids. Left to right: 10 strand lazy man, 14 strand, 20 strand, 21 strand double.

Fancier belts–like some braided belts–cost me a lot more in materials and take a long time to make. Most of the kangaroo leather belts shown here took beyond 4-5 hours to make, not including the (sometimes long, but always satisfying) time to figure out how to make the braid.

I straddle two worlds: 

As a biochemistry professor at a major research university, I work hard, teach students, train new scientists in my lab, do research that is published in respected journals, and earn grants that support my research. I received about 11 years of formal training for this career, love my job, and am paid well for my efforts.

As a (weekend) leather worker and former full-time saddle maker, I work hard, demonstrate my craft at various venues, make useful things for people who often tell me that they love them, and contribute to the local economy through participation in the Artisans’ Guild Gallery cooperative. In the past when I had more time, I taught children leatherwork in camps. I generally make around minimum wage for my efforts, sometimes more and sometimes less, once all the time is added up.

I don’t do leatherwork (or for that matter science) for the money. I try to cover my costs so that my hobby doesn’t dig into our household budget. I’m lucky in this regard. However, I have many friends who earn their entire living with their art or music or manual skills. Like me, they have trained for many years to hone their skills, and they make things that many people really love. When you add up the time that many of these artists and musicians take to make their beautiful work that enriches our lives so much, they don’t make much more than minimum wage either. Sometimes a lot less.

How did the $12 belt available at Walmart get made? Where did the leather or other materials come from? Who made it? Who shipped it? Who put it onto the shelf? Who sold it to you? How much did these people make, and what sort of life do they have?

How much is that belt really worth?

Happy Black Friday…

2 responses

  1. Thank you for this wonderful blog post, Art. I have many friends who tell me that I am a terrible snob because I love Italian designer shoes and handbags, and because I will spend well over $100 for a pair of jeans made in the USA. I buy so-called expensive organic produce from local farms either at the weekend markets or at the Puget Consumer Coop. I go out of my way to avoid purchasing anything with a made in China or made in India label. I know that I could certainly buy ‘more’ stuff if I purchased the cheaper mass-produced products – primarily manufactured by near-slave0wage or child-labor in the Orient, or by unsustainable large agribusiness farming methods, but then again, not only do I respect the workmanship and the quality of the products made by skilled craftsmen and craftswomen and the integrity of the family farmers putting in long days to carry on generations’ old traditions, I also want to support work that deserves my financial respect as well. By devaluing the products we bring into our lives, we also in essence devalue ourselves as we construct a reality to live in that doesn’t include anything of value. Bravo for your passion, your skill, and for valuing efforts. Think how much better all of our lives would be if we valued the work and skills needed to produce the products that we bring into our lives.

    Two years ago, when I was in Italy on vacation, I purchase a gorgeous woven leather handbag from a family-owned store. The shopkeeper was the third generation in the business. He had learned leather work from his father, who still helped out in the store and still made some of the beautiful bags that they sold in the store. His father had learned the trade and originally opened the store with his father following the Second World War. I love that handbag, and everytime I have it with me, I find myself thinking about the young man who sold it to me, explained how it was woven, and his father, who didn’t speak English, but clearly understood what his son was telling me as he nodded approval every so often – and the pride that they both had in the work that they had done and the pleasure that it was obviously giving me.

    Merry Christmas to you and yours, Art. Ruby.

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