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January 9, 2007

Lost trade restored at CW's Harness and Saddlemaker

As a journeyman harness and saddlemaker, Jay Howlett makes products to be worn by horses. But four years ago, he received the opportunity to put his skills to use making clothing familiar to residents of the 18th-century capital of Virginia: leather breeches.

“To show people without leather breeches in the 18th century is like showing people without jeans or khakis today,” said Howlett. “But there are very few originals left and the process of making them still is not fully known.”

In 2002 the Early American Industries Association gave Howlett a research grant to find out more about the process and to make pairs himself. Howlett’s research involves looking at surviving originals and trying to work backwards.

Other researchers and enthusiasts have come to Howlett’s aid. Now that Howlett has gotten the word out on his project, he is contacted by owners of breeches, fellow leatherworkers with their own notes and others who want to help. “I’m always finding out better, more historically accurate ways of doing things,” said Howlett.

During the period clothing production was expensive and time-consuming. For this reason, durability was key. “That’s why for certain garments leather made more sense than, say, cotton,” said Howlett. “Some families spent half their yearly income on clothing so you wanted something that was going to last a long time and be repairable.”

Howlett has made a dozen pairs so far for clients such as Mount Vernon and a private order as part of a riding suit. Colonial Williamsburg interpreter Mark Schneider wears his pair while interpreting Lafayette, Benedict Arnold and others. Apprentice shoemaker Val Povinelli wears his most days, and, of course, Howlett himself sports them regularly.

The leather breeches are slowly but surely becoming more visible in the Historic Area, but Howlett must divide his time between making breeches and his other responsibilities at the Harness and Saddlemaker. “Making the breeches is very time-intensive, so I can only complete a pair every so often,” he said. “I’m just happy to keep the trade alive.”

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Media Contact:
Penna Rogers
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