Holsters: Cotton or Synthetic?

Sewing-thread, cotton, machine-twine, cord -- call it what you will -- is another very important basic component in the manufacture of gunleather that is often subjected to a major degree of -- if you'll pardon the expression -- bullshit! I have lost count of the number of times I've seen references to "4-cord cotton thread, 6-twist nylon cord, 6-cord nylon twist," etc. in the gun press, mainly by writers wishing to convince us that they are privy to some secret source of information that is far beyond the reach or comprehension of us dummies! But what exactly do these references tell us -- apart from the very obvious fact that any thread will consist of several segments of yarn twisted together? There is never an explanation as to why one may be better or worse than any other -- if at all! There is also the case of nylon and cotton. We are told on the one hand that natural materials are better, others insist on the superiority of synthetics.

Now there isn't any doubt as to the importance of using the correct sewing medium. Its basic function is to hold together all the bits and pieces of leather that , together, make up a holster; so should it become defective or weak, the holster will -- quite literally -- fall apart!

The ideal cord should therefore conform to three basic requirements : it should be strong enough to withstand any stretching or other physical strains put upon it i.e. have a high tensile strength. It should be durable enough to withstand wear from rubbing or abrasion. Lastly, it should be impervious to deterioration from the long-term chemical effects of perspiration and moisture.

Sewing is normally associated with fabrics, where the stitches sink into the material because it is soft and absorbent. With vegetable-tanned leather, however, things are different. Because leather is far denser in its make-up than any fabric, the stitches cannot "bed in" to the same extent, and may lie proud of the surface. This may look extremely attractive, but it leaves the seam exposed and vulnerable. So a thick cord, though scoring high in the beauty and tensile department, also presents a higher profile, which is bad news for the damage-by-abrasion section!

There is a simple little hand-tool available that may be used to produce a narrow groove or sewing-channel. Stitching in this channel will ensure that the seam is fully contained and protected, lying flush with or even below the surface of the leather. The disadvantage of this tool is that it can only be used effectively if the seam lies near the edge of an item, as with a belt. In the real world, unfortunately, seams are rarely so conveniently located!

Logic dictates, therefore, that the solution must lie with using a thinner cord. Not necessarily! A thinner cord would, admittedly, lie flatter -- but its tensile strength would also be lower, thus compromising its integrity and putting us back to square one! So what we really need is something thin enough to minimise damage from external abrasion, yet possessing sufficient strength and elasticity to hold everything together. It seems like a tall order to fill, but modern synthetics have provided us with the answer.

Now I know that the very word synthetic is anathema to a lot of people, especially with the current prevailing accent on natural materials -- which is why cotton appears to be the preferred choice of many. However, necessity dictates that we deal in cold, hard facts, regardless of some fragile sensibilities. In order to obtain irrefutable, concrete evidence as to the suitability and efficacy of the various options available, I contacted two of the largest multi-national manufacturers of sewing-materials based here in England. Both were kind enough to provided me with evidence from an on-going series of controlled tests carried out in their respective Research and Development laboratories.

The following findings are a mean of information obtained from the two independent sources : Firstly, on a rising scale of resistance to abrasion and for seam durability for a unit thickness of cord, Cotton scored 3, Polyester scored 30 and Nylon or Polyamide 150. Secondly, for cord tenacity (obtained by dividing the tensile strength of a thread by its thickness) Cotton scored 25, Polyester scored 60 and Nylon or Polyamide 95. This data proves conclusively that Nylon and Polyamide are far stronger and more resilient to the effects of abrasion than either Polyester or Cotton, in addition to having a higher tensile strength.

Many are put off by the erroneous idea that synthetic threads have a "plasticky" appearance. This may have been the case in the early, experimental days of manufacture. Since then, however, the industry has spent a fortune in ensuring that modern synthetic threads are equally attractive and indistinguishable in appearance from their natural neighbour, cotton.

Another significant point to consider is the effect of sweat on these fibres. This is particularly important when considering IWB and other deep concealment holsters, normally worn close to the body or on the skin itself. Cotton is a natural fibre and, if used, is liable to deteriorate when subjected to the effects of perspiration over a period of time. Synthetics, on the other hand, would still retain their integrity, even after the cotton -- and possibly the leather -- had completely rotted away!

Does this mean that every holster sewn together with cotton is liable to fall apart in the course of the next few weeks and should therefore be consigned to the scrap-heap? Most certainly not! Any manufacturer using cotton will probably use a fairly substantial cord which should, with care, survive intact for the life-span of the holster. But it is definitely worth bearing in mind for future reference that Nylon- or Polyamide-based materials would allow for the use of a thinner cord, together with its other attendant advantages.

seamsBackstitch Equally important as the composition of the thread is the way it is used. All stitching should, ideally, be five or six stitches-per-inch (s.p.i.), depending on the substance of leather (middle seam in illustration alongside). Less than five s.p.i. may reduce production time in the minds of some manufacturers but, because the stitches are longer, will produce a weakened welt (lower seam). More than five s.p.i. would be equally detrimental, as the profusion of needle-holes would have the same effect as the perforations in a sheet of postage-stamps (top seam).

What about parallel or double seams -- are they necessary? Well, they certainly do look nice, but we mustn't lose sight of the fact that they can also have a more practical purpose in adding body and inhibiting stretch. However, they do little to protect the main seam. A more practical alternative would be to have all the main stress-points back-stitched, as illustrated on the right.

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