Buying custom chaps from your local chapsmaker is certainly a good way to go. It’s the most convenient method of purchase, as you can see for yourself samples of the chapsmaker’s work and become familiar with the different leather weights. You’ll also avoid shipping charges and likely get more immediate gratification.
However, you may not have a qualified maker nearby, forcing you to measure yourself and place your faith in a long-distance maker. Don’t worry, though. It can work.
Chaps, pronounced “shaps,” are versatile clothing, functional on the trail or for work, and a wardrobe standard for reining, cutting, working cow horse, pleasure and rodeo events. Though not appropriate at English events, they’re used extensively schooling. They protect and warm your legs and offer better contact through the upper thighs, all the while looking great.
For the first-time buyer, it’s crucial to invest time in research before investing money. For the repeat custom-chaps buyer, shopping over the Internet is major eye candy.
Going custom can be an eye-opening experience where finances and fashion are concerned. A pair of basic custom chaps starts at somewhere between $195 for suede show chaps and around $350 to $400 for English schooling chaps, so it’s important to consider carefully how you plan to use your chaps. Your intentions will help steer you to the appropriate style and leather type.
Your style choice is probably more of a matter for recreational riders than competitors. Chinks, batwings, shotgun, or schooling chaps — almost any style except a rodeo chap — can be used successfully. The trick is knowing how much chaps you actually want, as some chaps are made from heavier leather.
Western trail riders may prefer wearing chinks to English schooling chaps. Chinks — short chaps that buckle around the upper thigh and behind the knee with long fringe that serves as a gutter for rain and leaves your jeans dry — are much cooler than a full-leg zippered chap and offer a greater degree of flexibility through the leg, especially the knee. That’s a nice feature for mounting and dismounting. Some chapsmakers use a heavier-weight leather for chinks, so be sure to request swatches, which are usually available at a charge.
Though riders of all disciplines wear schooling chaps, English riders especially select them for the protection they offer from their legs rubbing against stirrup leathers, something already accomplished by Western stirrup fenders. For professionals riding several horses a day, lined schooling chaps — made with an extra layer of leather that makes them more durable — could be ideal.
For some, chinks may not offer enough protection for winter riding, or they may simply be too heavy. Batwing chaps offer added surface protection because they cover the length of the rider’s leg. Woolies, as the name implies, are made of leather with the hair left on, often Angora goat. They are typically shotgun-style chaps, though they can also be chinks. If you’re still unsure about which style to choose, your chapsmaker should offer you guidance.
After you choose a style, consider what leather you want used. Quality top-grain leather is soft enough to mold to your body without sacrificing strength and is unblemished.
According to Bryan Kunic, owner of Tully Hole Saddlery in California’s central coast, a trick of the trade is to cut a single pair of chinks from one side of an entire hide, or a single shotgun leg per side. For his yolks, Kunic uses only Hermann Oak leather, which is also used in high-quality saddles, for its superior carving, stamping and darkening qualities.
Carol Gessell, of Washington-state-based Black Horse Leatherworks and Saddlery, makes chaps for Western show, work, English schooling chaps and more. Gessell said to examine chaps first-hand, if you can, not simply styles and leather types, but fit, as well.
Gessell said fit across the backband is key to a sleek profile in the show ring. The backband should lie flat against the rider’s back and not droop. “Ask for details when you see something you like. Looking online is a good start, but you need to feel (the leather),” she said.
Weights And Other Materials
While it’s not essential to be thoroughly versed in leather weights, it’s good stuff to know. Most chaps are made from top-grain cowhide, also known as full-grain leather. It’s premium leather and comes in varying weights. A good chapsmaker should advise you to choose a slightly larger chap for added mobility, if you pick a style that supports heavy leather.
Leather is tanned in runs, with the first run being the choicest, frequently called “grade one.” Janet Nittman of Dover Saddlery said, “Ask your chapsmaker about the leather grade, as it affects quality.”
But if you’ve never worn chaps before, you’ll want to understand how light is “light” as well as the feel of heavier leathers. Some will love the feeling of a pair of English schooling chaps, made from buttery four-ounce glove-tanned leather, molding to your legs like a second skin. Others will find that feeling claustrophobic.
Beyond sensory gratification, be sure to factor in how you’ll use your chaps. If the leather’s too pliable it won’t stand up to regular use; too stiff and you’ll feel immobile, sort of like a kid in an unwieldy 1940s snowsuit.
While top-grain cowhide weighing from 2 ?? to five ounces is typical for custom chaps and four- to six-ounce leather is used for chinks, the Parelli Collection uses elk hide for their chinks. Because top-grain leather is tanned using a different process, its somewhat waxy surface tends to be more stain-resistant and durable, though. Some makers claim that, though supple and luxurious, elk hide may stain more easily and could be less rugged under constant use.
Ultrasuede, which is not leather at all but polyester, is a lightweight material suitable for Western pleasure. It’s both durable and washable.
Fit And Workmanship
Good fit and quality workmanship are essential in quality chaps that will last a number of years. To get the best fit in a pair of chaps you’ll love wearing, the most important thing is precisely following the chaps maker’s measuring directions. It’s not a do-it-yourself job. Someone else must take your measurements, while you’re wearing the jeans, belt and boots you expect to wear under your chaps.
The type and number of measurements a chapsmaker uses can depend on the style of chap you select, with perhaps more measurements taken along the leg for schooling chaps. Some chapsmakers’ websites offer directions to obtain these measurements, while others prefer to give them over the phone.
Examples of basic measurements include, but are often not limited, to:
• Waist just below the belt line.
• Around the upper thigh at the fullest part.
• Around the mid-thigh (halfway between the upper high and knee).
• Around the knee.
• Around the calf.
• Outseam from just below the belt to the ground.
• Inseam from the crotch to the ground (not your j eans’ inseam measurement).
• Length from crotch to knee.
If you’re losing weight, or think you might gain some, be sure to tell your chaps maker. He or she may be able to accommodate this to some extent.Elements of top-notch workmanship include:
• Great fit;
• Quality, grade-one leather (no stretchy belly hide);
• Hermann Oak leather for western chaps/chinks yolks;
• Straight, consistent stitching and reinforced stress points (for zippers this means adding strip of leather sandwiched between the chap leg and the zipper; for thigh tops, an extra band at the top of the leg);
• Lined backbands.
Look for precision in design element. How intricate is it' Are scallops (typically a rodeo-chap feature) wavy or cut precisely' Are the yoke edges and leg stripes rolled or merely cut' With custom chaps, you get what you pay for, so if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Nittman stressed leather softness as a key factor in determining the quality of English chaps. “Other factors include the range of options and use of high-quality snaps and zippers,” she said.
Travis Minnie, a former bull rider and founder of TBarM Chaps and Leatherwork, said, “Right now to me the very best (leather) is American, then Brazil and so on. Good hair on hide should be somewhat flexible and the colors should be sharp. I personally like short hair cause it seems to last longer.”
Minnie advised professional cowboys to personally contact their prospective chapsmaker. He said the advantage of shopping on the web is that “you can find a maker anywhere in the world and choose the one that has the work that best fits your style ... I personally would call and ask for some contacts or just talk with them and see if they even know where to put a bull rope or bronc saddle or rigging.”
Kunic suggests buyers go right to the maker, who stands behind the product and strives to make chaps that strike your fancy. “I would caution people to avoid 'middle men’ and to deal directly with the maker. In the long run, they will be better served,” he said.
“Comfort-fit” stretch panels and growing room for kids are a great idea. Black Horse Leatherworks is patenting “comfort panel” chaps, which have a “Spandura” (spandex/cordura) stretch panel hidden on the inside thigh. The hidden panel runs the length of the leg, offering up to an additional two inches of leg room for adults whose weight varies or for kids as a growth option.
Given the way kids outgrow clothes, Australian chapsmaker Mad Cow’s (www.customchap.com) growth feature in English schooling chaps is definitely an “aha” idea. For an additional $25 (Australian), added length can be created through a folded cuff, while a set-in side zipper offers more width in the leg.
Serious riders will delight in the myriad design possibilities in decorations. Western and English chaps can feature hair-on leather (calf skin) in zebra and tiger stripes or other faux exotic animal prints; brindle and other natural hair and color patterns; metallics; multiple-colored fringes; hand tooled yolks with reptile leather or hair on calf yokes; front straps with sterling silver belt buckles; personalized backbands featuring needle pointed or beaded names, monograms and designs.
Conchos — large decorative sterling silver, nickel, or steel buttons — come in many different styles and are often used to fasten the backband to the chaps around the waist on either side, or to join two ends of the backband in the middle. Leg stripes down English schooling chaps can include a variety of decorative stitching including braids, twists, piping and buckstitching. Cuffs can be gussetted to lie smoothly over boot tops.
Rodeo chaps are just as limitless in design possibilities, especially for appliques on the legs, conchos, single, double or triple fringe down the side and hand-tooled yolks.
Our recommendations for successfully purchasing custom chaps are:
• Learn the difference among different chaps styles and leather weights before you order.
• Have someone else measure you and don’t cheat. No one will leak your measurements.
• Deal directly with the actual chapsmaker, if possible, and save copies of all email communications about your order; make notes about telephone calls. Ask specific details of the transaction (payment method, down payments, how long it will take to make the chaps, and so on). Document the answers.If you don’t feel good about what the chapsmaker is telling you, move on.
Finally, because custom chaps are individually made, don’t expect the chapsmaker to take something back unless there is a problem with craftsmanship. (For information on washing leather chaps and apparel, see our August 2003 article.)