Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

January 19, 2013

MARTINO: Jones turns hobby into worldwide business

He makes leather sheaths for knives

By John Martino
Tribune columnist

— Since his early years, Robert Jones always has had an interest in knives. To him, they were useful tools steeped in tradition and sleek beauty. But he noticed many lacked an important component, as important as the blade itself — a safe, quality-made sheath. After all, even in custom-made blades, time and effort is spent on creating the knife itself and not so much on what will cover it.

Beginning in the late 1970s, Jones began making a few sheaths by hand, originally for several of his own knives. He then crafted a few for friends at their insistence. From the onset, the overall quality of his work was noticeable and word quickly spread. With encouragement from his family and friends, his company, Hand Sewn Leather, was born.

Animal hide, as a craft material, is regarded by many people without equal. It has been used for centuries, not only for its attractiveness, but also because it is extremely functional. These days, in a world where almost everything is a product of advanced technology and mass production, there is a deep appreciation for natural, quality handmade items.

If you are interested in having a custom-made sheath by Jones, plan on sending him the specific knife. Each piece is made special for each individual piece of cutlery. Jones literally takes each knife and makes several paper patterns of exact shapes and dimensions before the first piece of leather is cut.

“I have people from all over the world send me their knives and payment for their sheath without ever meeting me,” said Jones. “It means a lot that they have that kind of trust in me and I respect that.”

To date, Jones has not received the first negative comment about his service or product. That says a lot considering we live in a world full of those who like to complain.  

Over the past 10 years, Jones has produced more than 6,000 custom-made leather sheaths and his business has reached worldwide status. Those who request his products are not people who have their knives on display, but rather from those who use them on a daily basis. His customers run the gamut from those involved in law enforcement, fire and rescue, outdoors and military.

“I have even made sheaths for businessmen who wear three-piece suits every day,” said Jones. “I’m also honored to have a customer base with some of our country’s special operations members.”

Jones doesn’t believe in mass production, not for something as unique and personal as a knife.

“No doubt, machines can make leather products much faster. But I want to make things better and hand sewing is superior to machine sewing,” he said.

Different people may want a particular way in which to carry a knife other than on a belt. Each sheath is different. Mass-produced sheaths often times utilize a “lock-stitch” sewing method (also called a bobbin stitch). If just one loop of the stitch is broken, the other side becomes loose and the process of unraveling begins. We have all seen this happen on clothing that is mass produced. In hand sewn items, each stitch is locked together individually and will remain intact even if part of the stitching becomes severed. Time-honored methods produce time-honored products.

“Everything I use is American made,” explained Jones.

His leather is cowhide which he believes is the best in terms of making knife sheaths. He also uses a welt when constructing his products. A welt keeps the knife from cutting into the sheath.

Making these unique leather products by hand can take anywhere from several hours to several days, depending on the amount of ornamentation customers desire. Some of Jones’ sheaths can be complex in producing. They can sport wildlife scenes, various types of fancy inlays, stitching and designs. Some even contain multiple pockets to house instruments such as sharpeners or survival tools. The only thing limiting sheath design is imagination.

In addition to producing his leather products by day, Jones serves as the evening chaplain for the Kokomo Rescue Mission by night. He has employed several people from the homeless shelter as his business has grown.

“I am fortunate to have some great help,” Jones said appreciatively. “I have always loved knives and also helping people,” he added, while sitting in his eastern Howard County workshop. “This way I can accomplish both.”

If you are interested in owning a unique, custom-made sheath of your own, you can contact Jones at robert@handsewnleather.com.

John Martino is the Tribune’s outdoors columnist. He may be reached by email at jmartinooutdoors@att.net.