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John Chapman of Good Wear Leather

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    Posted: 22 Mar 2014 at 3:44pm

  One of the most iconic articles of men's workwear ever produced- standing alongside the five pocket denim jean, blue chambray work shirt, and M-47 boot, is the WWII-era A-2 jacket. The A-2 has enjoyed some 6 decades of popular use; from the skies over Europe during WWII, post military life in the US, handed down second-lives, vintage status and countless pedestrian or high fashion civilian variations on the basic A-2 design.
 In the past few decades a number of companies have begun reproducing the A-2 in more exacting detail. Brands like Gap have offered basic and relatively inexpensive simulacra of this classic, while some Japanese and UK companies have offered more expensive versions with bullet-pointed claims of exact reproduction.
 Since 2006, Good Wear Leather has been earning a name for itself as a highly accurate reproducer of a variety of A-2 contract jackets. Due to Good Wear's designer and sole manufacturer John Chapman's pixel-perfect obsession with detail, the company is regarded in many circles as the world leader in clone-like reproduction of the A-2.
 Last November I visited John Chapman at the Good Wear workshop, which occupies the garage and part of the main floor of a tidy suburban home a half hour north of Seattle, Washington.
 John, along with sales rep and sole GW employee Vickie Erlandsen, showed me around the shop, explained some manufacturing techniques, and demonstrated some fascinating cutting and sewing processes.
 John was kind enough to do some follow up calling and emailing with me about his design and production philosophy that made the following interview possible.

Q: Leather jacket making wasn't your first career, was it?

A: No, I grew up in Seattle as an artist, drawing, painting, and building models. I could have gone into a career in art, but figured there wouldn't be any money in it, so I ultimately went into web design. I got heavily into graphic design and went to school in San Francisco for that for a while, in the late '90s. I worked at a few small start-ups, then got a more stable job at Broderbund and stayed there for a while. But after it was bought and had a lot of downsizing I got laid off. I decided to move back home after that, since housing in the Bay Area is so ridiculously expensive.
 I worked a few odd jobs back in Seattle, during which time I bought this old goatskin A-2 that had some rot on it. As an artist, I thought I could paint over the rot and make it at least look like the ideal I had in my mind, but that didn't work out so well. I figured, why not just make one? Sewing doesn't look so hard. I'm not dumb, it can't be that hard to figure out! [laughs] Well of course, sewing is much harder than I had imagined. But I did sit down and work at it. I took apart that A-2 and tried to cut a pattern, bought some cowhide from a local leather suppler, acquired some hardware, sourced some knits. I used my  grandmother's vintage White sewing machine, then I used my wife's modern home sewing machine, then bought a Pfaff home sewing machine, which I was able to make a sort of jacket on. Eventually I bought a walking foot sewing machine, which finally was of a quality I felt was adequate for my purposes.
  Up to this point I hadn't had any intention of starting a company making A-2s, but a lot of my friends really liked what I was doing, and kept telling me I should make a full-time job of it. A little later I got laid off from another web design job, and decided to give it a try.

Q: Do you still have that first jacket you made?

A: No, it was awful, and I had used an original Crown zipper in it, so I took it apart and recycled what I could from it. But it did get me drunk on the idea that I could make an A-2.
 With the new walking foot machine, it worked much better right away, but I didn't know how to use it properly. I didn't know anybody who used this type of machine, so I really learned everything I know about it myself, through experimentation. For instance, there was a mysterious bolt on the top of the machine which kept falling off, and I finally put it on and tightened it down all the way- turned out it regulated pressure on the walking and needle feet. I learned over time that the stitching had to be tight, but putting a lot of tension on the cotton thread would cause it to break. But heightening the pressure on the walking foot with that little bolt squinches the leather a little, and as the foot leaves the leather it expands a little, which cause the seam to tighten up without the thread breaking.
 Another huge lesson I learned through experimentation was that, with feeding the leather into the machine, it's incredibly important that you finger the leather into the machine correctly. If you just take two pieces of leather and sew them together the walking foot will have a tendency to pull the material in at slight, torqued angle. You have to put a little english on the leather to make the vertical seam truly perpendicular, instead of a 10˚ angle. You have to use your right hand and press down just so to the right of the needle.
  Another example- when you attach a lining to a leather shell, you should attach it with the lining facing up, because the leather has little tendency to pucker, while that lining sure does, so you have to have that facing up so you can really control it and keep it taut as it gets stitched. I had a few puckered linings before I figured that out.
 For every process in making an A-2 there are twenty little rules like that I have to obey to get a consistent end result, and I had to learn all of those through educated guessing and trial and error.
 I wish there had been someone sitting next too me saying "No, John, here's how you do it…"
  Some things I did learn indirectly through other makers. For example, if you look at how a sleeve is attached to a body, after you make the first blind stitch you have to go in to the leather of the body and put in all of these little clip marks, easing cuts, so that they can open up when you cause it to do a reversed curve fold, or else the body panels will develop puckering, because you're trying to allow something to expand that has no space to. I happened to see in a Real McCoy's book the process of their cutting and sewing, and in a close-up of the body panel at the sleeve I could see all of these little cuts in the body and I was like "Oh! I should do that…"

Q: How many sewing machines do you have now that you use on all of your jackets?

A: I have a newer, much more efficient walking foot machine, my original as a backup, a buttonholer, a Brother cloth machine for linings, and for sheepskins, I have a fur machine and a double-needle for horsehide taping. I also have a cylinder bed machine that does one stitch on one type of A-2 only, just one stitch in the armpit. This is for a pre-war A-2 Aeros & Werbers.

Q: How many of these do you use on a typical A-2s?

A: Just 2 for most models: the walking foot does all the leather assembly; then a machine that does the quads and the collar stand, if there is one. Three, if its an early '30s A-2, and needs that special armpit stitch.

Q: These are mostly modern or antique machines?

A: Oh, all newer. I'm not interested, really, in vintage machines. Newer ones are more efficient and easier to maintain. I'm into having the most optimal sewing machines possible. The older ones don't generally even have a reverse, and the parts are so hard to source. I want everything so new that I can just go over to my local machine guy and pick up parts or order them on-line and get them in a couple days. I don't have time to spend days or weeks searching eBay and hoping to get lucky…
 My buttonholer, however, is a vintage machine from the '50s that has almost 400 million counts on it, and it's a real beast. It will screw itself up if you look at it funny. But when it is set up right, it works perfectly, and is a beautiful machine.

Q: So when you finally had an appropriate, good quality machine capable of easily sewing leather, and were learning to use it, how did other aspects of your craft evolve?

A:  My patterns improved pretty quickly, I think, as I really had the skill set for that from my design work. My next really big challenge was sourcing leather. I used the very basic cowhide I had access to for a while, but eventually I found some horsehide, and experimented with that, then got a custom order of goatskin. Funnily, I was talking to a competitor who wanted some pictures of some vintage jackets I had, and I mentioned that I was getting some horsehide from Horween. He mentioned that he was getting some Japanese horsehide. I went and googled "Horsehide Japan" and thats how I found my horsehide supplier, Shinki.
Q:  So did you have any other vintage jackets back then?

A: Yes, I bought lots of originals between 1999 & 2006. I also bought repros. I had, for instance, an original and repro Rough Wear, original and repro Dubow, and some other models. I started to notice how much the repros were not like the originals. I'm an artist- I pick things apart. I'm trained to do pixel by pixel perfect stuff, or photo-realistic drawings, and to me, these just didn't work. What I had were beautiful originals, that usually weren't in the best of shape and often were pretty fragile, and rock-solid repos that didn't look like the originals when you put them on. That really bothered me, especially when some of these companies were saying that they were the the apex of stitch-by-stitch perfectly accurate reproduction. I was like, really? I can pick 18 things out of this repro that aren't the same as the original. They never seemed to sit properly when you wore them. These were just A-2s, mind you, though I did also look at many Navy jacket repros, which were also nothing like the originals. The patterns were the biggest problems, I think, for the A-2 repros.

Q: Do you think the pattern problem was just bad pattern making or was it intentional alteration?

A: Oh, purely intentional. I believe they created patterns that, for out of 100 customers, 90+ would like them and not know that they weren't true to original jackets. The arms, for instance, were reproed with wider arm holes and cut to come out more perpendicular than originals. Originals had arms that pointed down slightly.  With these repros, when you put your arm in them it drags down the epaulet, giving a very round shouldered look, which is not true to originals, but is very comfortable.
 With some of the Japanese companies, I believe they made patterns that were more friendly to Japanese body types, and tended to use the same pattern for different A-2 contracts, just swapping out details to make them look superficially like the originals. But the same pattern, which the original different contracts definitely did not use.

Q: I remember when I was up visiting you last year, and you showed me some really minute details you copied in finishing seams around some pocket tops. Does this hyper attention to detail come naturally after your prior web design work?

A: Oh yes, I had two bosses at my longest job, who would argue for weeks over 1 pixel. I guess it rubbed off. Not that any of our customers would ever have noticed the extra pixel!
 But some of those little details are so important. For instance, on an Aero original, there was a trapezoidal shaped leather tab at the base of the zipper in the waist band. Well, everybody who copies an Aero makes a perfect rectangle, but the original was absolutely meant to be a trapezoid, it was not a rectangle! That detail needs to be a trapezoid, just like all of the 100 original examples I've examined. That was a design feature. Or, I have a Rough Wear I was looking at to repro, and carefully inspected every piece while I was dismantling it, and there were these really cool curves in the body panels, which I assumed would have been straight, and I wondered if the curvature wasn't from wear and stretch, but no, after dismantling the jacket I believe the pieces were absolutely cut with those curves in it. When you assemble the jacket you realize that the curves make it a lot easier on the sewer, so they don't have to turn weird corners. It simplifies the sewing process, affects the final form of the jacket, and is absolutely something you need to acknowledge and reproduce, if you're going to make a copy that is in any way true to the original. It is so fascinating to me that someone sat down with a slide rule and designed theses curves into the patterns to make things easy as possible for the sewers. so they wouldn't even have to think, but just aimed things at the sewing machine and plowed through.
 You look at someone who made original contract A-2s, like Dubow, who weren't principally garment makers, but made baseball gloves and golf bags, and there are so many flaws to their thinking about how to make a jacket. But they were reliable, and could turn out the jackets by the deadline, so they got the contract. Even though they didn't make the best jacket or have the most streamlined process.
 I copy that sort of thing in my jackets. I see the dumb little details that may have not been the best or most elegant way to sew the jackets, but that's how they were done, and so I do that too.
 I care, for instance, about which direction the seam allowances go. If you look at the little leather tabs I was telling you about at the base of the zipper, some companies would have the tab seam allowance face down, and the body seam allowance face up, where the two pieces join on the horizontal line, whereas some companies had both seam allowances facing up, so there was a big lump at the bottom of the body. I copy that, because that's the way the originals were.

Q: So it sounds like when you make a new pattern you actually have to take apart an old jacket.

A: I prefer to. That's absolutely the way I want to do it. I try to find old jackets that are so messed up that they're not going to be fixed. Like they can't be conditioned or repaired realistically. I took apart a Monarch that had moth holes which couldn't be repaired- rotten, thread going, seams falling apart. That was a perfect candidate for taking apart.
 You really see some interesting things when you look at the seam allowances when you dismantle jackets. Seams were generally specified to be 3/8th of an inch, but what you really see when you take them apart were seam allowances that ranged from 3/4" to 2mm. Those sewers were payed by the garment, so they sewed VIOLENTLY. Take two pieces and have at it. "Hey, it's a little uneven…" "Yeah, I know."

Q: So some pattern makers were better at cutting for ease of sewing. What jackets have you dismantled that make you think the pattern makers were the best at this sort of practice?

A: No. 1 was Rough Wear and no. 2 was Perry Sportswear. With Perry, it was because everything was sort of round, and rounded corners are much easier to poke out than square or pointed ones. Look at Dubow, who had a very pointed collar- that's really hard to take from an inside-out assembly of two pieces and flip it to right side out and poke out the point. You'll not get the point out all the way if you don't press hard enough, and if you do press hard enough there's a good chance you could poke through the leather or seam, in which case you might have to flip it and resew it. With Perry and their rounded shapes there was much less chance of either of those things happening. It was easy as all hell to flip it and top stitch it.
 And even Perry's epaulettes- there's an under piece of the epaulette which is usually cut a little shorter than the top, which provides a proper backing for it. They didn't bother cutting out the outer edge, so that they had a one-size fits all, whether you were making a 36 or a 48, the sewer used the same size epaulette, which made the assembly process easier and faster.
 Rough Wear were better jacket makers, and were pattern geniuses. They made a lot of jackets for Montgomery Ward & Hercules, so had tons of experience and were very intelligent about how to streamline the process, but not by cutting corners or over-simplifying.
 Then there was Osterman, another military A-2 contractor, who had horrible patterns. Their shoulders were tiny and they had a fat stomach area. Not comfortable, and dumpy looking. It's funny to see where some contractors excelled and some were just like, "dude, you need some help."

Q: I hadn't realized there was so much variation in A-2 contractors.

A: It's incredible. Even through from twenty feet away they all mostly look the same.

Q: Is that part of what initially attracted you to the A-2, this kind of minute variation?

A: The A-2 is definitely my favorite jacket. I would love to be able to explain why, but I can't really. They're just so simple and cool. When I was in high school a friend told me he wanted to get a leather flight jacket, and as I had always been interested in WWII, I started looking at a lot of old WWII aviation photographs, and really fell in love with the A-2. I also really like WWII Navy jackets, and they are also as hilariously different one from another as A-2s, if not more so.

Q: How long does it take you to make a jacket, from cutting to finish?

A: The sewing time for a typical jacket is about two days (though I can make an A-2 in one day if I try). A Navy jacket tends to take 3-4 days, and sometimes a Ventura takes three days, though again, if I'm focused, it'll only take two days. For all of these, cutting up the jacket parts is by far the most focused and hard part. The sewing isn't quite as hard. No mistakes are allowed in the cutting of the jacket! The Navy jackets have so many, many parts, and all are quite detailed.

Q: When I visited you at your studio last year, you had a rack of full length fur coats in one corner of your studio.

A: Yes, that's all for the Navy jackets that have mouton collars. No one makes modern mouton like they did in the '40s. Modern stuff is too thin and wispy, or to hard and curly. The original is very even and has subtle color variations that you see if you brush it with your hand in sunlight. No modern stuff compares, that I've seen. Older stuff also holds up to moisture better. Modern versions seem to mat and curl when they get wet.
 I am constantly on the lookout on eBay.

Q: Do you sell a lot of stuff to the Japanese market?

A: Oddly enough, no. I think what it is, is that the Japanese like to have things in their hands right away. My wait time is over a year and a half, and also, they tend to like to have very good communication, and I speak no Japanese.

Q: What do you look for when you are picking new patterns?

A: The number one priority is that it has to be a flattering cut. It has to make an athletic person look good. Number one priority. Then it has to be whether I find that the individual components, like the collar and pockets, are interesting to me. I do have other plans in my head, but I am always aware of the pressure to keep producing things for my clients who are waiting.

Q: You sew everything yourself right now. Do you intend at any point to train an assistant?

A: I have had interns, but it's never worked out so far, for a number of reasons. One complication is that everything is custom, so every time I make a jacket I have to explain everything I do. That makes it scary to hire somebody else. It's not just a delegation of a straightforward task when everything is custom and each contract is so different...
 I am looking at having one model of Goodwear repro, an original Aero contract A-2, with no sizing or design customization, made with some assistance. If all goes as planned, that one A-2 design, in stock sizes, would take only a month or two to get into the hands of my customers. Ideally that would give me time to develop new items, like the Mojave and Arcadia that I have pictured in the GW gallery, though have not offered for sale yet. And I have other ideas that I'd like to develop, but…

                      (above image courtesy of John Chapman)

Q You've just introduced an A-1 model on your site. Anything you'd like to say about the design process on that?

A: That jacket is not based on an original A-1, actually. This jacket (and the SAT A-2 jacket that I offer) are totally fantasy jackets, but knowing what I do about A-2s and A-1s in construction, I can come pretty damn close in the overall effect that it should have. My A-1 is based on a Star Sportswear A-2, very loosely, but I experimented on the pattern a lot to approximate a '30s fit, rather than a later WWII one, and looked at a lot of Japanese magazines that have hyper detailed shots of A-1s. Overall I feel it has the right presence when it's worn. I actually don't have a tremendous amount of love for the A-1, but I have a lot of friends who were extremely keen on the A-1, and kept asking me to make one. I finally gave in, and am happy with the result.  It made me think more about some of the refinements that came around in the A-2, like the epaulettes, which were meant to protect the shoulder seam from wear by your parachute harness. I love seeing that kind of evolution, and stepping back to the A-1 made me appreciate some of those steps, and the thinking behind them, even more.

Q: The capeskin leather on one of your A-1s that I've seen is really nice, very vintagey, with a nice grain and patina. Is it from a different source than your normal capeskin, or distressed in some way?

A: That capeskin was just the typical capeskin I have, but I washed it.

Q: Oh really?

A: Yeah, gave it a wash, then ran it through the dryer for 2 or three minutes to dry it up. You know, tanneries always want to get the most leather that they can, so they tend to stretch it out a lot when they're drying it, so they can get every square inch of money they possibly can. But what's better for making a jacket is if you pre-shrink it, just like cotton. So I did that with these cape skins beforehand. It gives the leather a little bit more of a dense feel, and also has a super cool, ancient look to it. Even more so once its worn a little, as the higher spots get a nice shine to them.

Q: How do you wash skins? The bathtub?

A: (laughing) No, just right in the washing machine!

Q: I wouldn't think they would fit, or if they did that they'd wreck your machine.

A: No, not at all. Once the skins get wet it's just like having a heavy wool shirt, or more like 9 heavy wool shirts, in there. So not too hard on the machine. The only thing that creeps me out is, what if there are a bunch of grotesque chemicals in the leather, and they're in the machine for 60 minutes? Is this going to affect my son's brain when he wears clothes that went through after? I wouldn't do this with horsehide, which is a lot stiffer, but it works really nicely on capeskin. If you wear capeskin raw, after a few months it begins to look pretty much the same way, this just accelerates the process.

Q: Do you treat the capeskin with anything after you wash it?

A: Typically no, but I can put a clear coat, a sort of acrylic glaze, on it, which would make it look really even in tone. If you use a heat gun on it to dry the clear coat it becomes nearly waterproof. Otherwise the capeskin is super water absorbent, any light rain and you'll see it start to speckle up right away.

Q: Do you ever use any kind of conditioner on your coats?

A: Not generally. New leather absolutely doesn't need any conditioning, for a very, very long time. Only with really worn and dry vintage jackets will I ever use a conditioner. With those I use Vaseline, which is pH neutral. It adds fluid to the leather, but doesn't make the leather gooey. What's that heavy leather dressing… Pecards? That always feels so greasy afterwards, I don't like it. Jackets conditioned with Vaseline feel dry to the touch afterwards, but it does evaporate after about 6 months. One thing to consider is the cotton thread in older jackets. If you put the wrong stuff on there, like mink oil, it won't do anything right away, but eventually, those threads will be rotten. I think it's the negative pH, it eats cotton thread. Not the leather so much, which after the tanning process is a non-biological substance.

Q: What?

A: Yeah, cotton thread is still biologic, but leather, after tanning, has had many of the organic compounds removed and replaced with inorganic ones.

Q: What, like embalming?

A: Yes, it's bizarre, but essentially that. The point is that you make it inedible to any living thing, like bacteria or insects. For Shinki, they leave their leather tanning in the fluid for two weeks, which converts it from biologic to non-biologic, but then air it out for three months. I think it's that evaporation process that really gets most the chemicals out.

Q: You were wearing a jacket made from Shinki horsehide at Inspiration, no?

A: Yes, Shinki is my main tannery, and all they do is horsehide. they've been around since 1951. They do both veg and chrome tanning, but I prefer the veg tan stuff, as the chemicals seem to be less toxic.

Q: Where do you see the repro jacket business going over the next decade or so?

A: The business is rather consistent, and I doubt we'll see many more huge innovations, though what I really expect to happen is see more small companies that enter the realm of jackets offered, and with more of a myriad of prices. I've seen more new companies in the last ten years, and I suspect that as more people see that it's possible, more small operations will start. I also think the demand for high quality will get stronger and stronger. Reproduction military jackets, overall, are far better now than they were ten years ago. I also hope nothing beats down the economy, as all jacket makers are dependent on customers who have solid income, and a solid interest in WWII leather jackets.

Q: Have the recent artisinal/heritage trends affected the repro market much, in your view?

A: I think the artisan/heritage wave will hold strong as long as a core percentage of people have excess money. These items are not for the common man with no interest in vintage, yet for those with disposable income who have tasted the quality, it's a bit like a drug. These higher quality items are difficult to let go of, and against the French maxim, more is more, and less is less.


Edited by mr randal - 02 Apr 2014 at 12:51am
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (6) Thanks(6)   Quote mr randal Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 22 Mar 2014 at 3:45pm
Additional shots from the Good Wear workshop:

An original jacket tag from the 1940s-

Good Wear repro tag.

       (above images courtesy of John Chapman)

Other Good Wear repro tags.

Vintage zipper pulls.

New, deadstock & vintage hardware.

Edited by mr randal - 22 Mar 2014 at 3:58pm
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (3) Thanks(3)   Quote mr randal Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 22 Mar 2014 at 3:53pm

And a few detail shots from the shop.

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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (1) Thanks(1)   Quote mr randal Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 22 Mar 2014 at 4:01pm
Special thanks to Ross Beswick (Devilish) for editing and content suggestions.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Superfluous Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 22 Mar 2014 at 4:17pm
Fantastic interview and photos -- thanks!  I wish I had the patience for the two year wait to purchase a GW jacket. 
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Boyo Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 22 Mar 2014 at 4:42pm
Great stuff Mr. Randal.. I'm thinking its time to get in line..
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Ishmael Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 22 Mar 2014 at 6:27pm
Great job Mr. Randal. Really enjoyed that, thanks. JC is pure class, all around.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote hollows Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 22 Mar 2014 at 6:40pm
Nice interview.  I ooulda sworn his jacket at Inspiration was Badalassi leather.  Maybe he had a different one on the first day.
I make things out of leather.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote devilish Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 22 Mar 2014 at 8:52pm
It was a pleasure to help. I only wish I could've visited the Holy Land and seen the man in action. I am a huge fan of his jackets.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (1) Thanks(1)   Quote Jelthead Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 23 Mar 2014 at 3:52am
Really nice write up on John! I remember the good old days when we'd meet up in San Francisco. He'd show up at my hotel with a trunk full of originals to reproduction jackets. We'd nerd out for hours over zippers, knits and patterns. Over the years it's been really nice to see his business take off. There's something really cool about an iconic American design once again being made here. Thanks again for sharing.
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