Photography Joe Supple
From the small Belgian town of Oostvleteren to the beautiful undulating green velvet hills and valleys of the Devon countryside, through five generations, the Heistercamp story is a tale of family values, its chapters spanning more than 130 years.
Back in 1884, Gustavus Heistercamp was renowned as a master of his trade, making and restoring fine leather shoes in his workshop in the province of West Flanders.
His son, Camille, brought the business to the UK soon after the turn of the century, settling in Chesham, Buckinghamshire and setting up shop selling belts and handbags.
Camille’s son David was next to learn the family trade, taking over the running of the factory when his father retired, then opening a saddlery and shop which provided the foundation for Nigel’s education in the business.
Initially specialising in repairs, Nigel took the transformative steps of relocating to Devon, establishing the Heistercamp brand and introducing guitar straps to the range. Today, he runs the business with his wife Alaine and when the time comes will hand over to sons James and Craig – already integral parts of the business and learning the intricacies of this venerable trade.
Each member of the family has learnt to stitch
The family’s handsome chocolate box workshop, nestled between the hedgerows and winding rivers that zig-zag between the vast expanses of Dartmoor and Exmoor, remains a 100 per cent family-run operation. Their bespoke, vegetable-tanned leather guitar straps are produced entirely in-house. Nothing is outsourced, even the website is maintained by James and Alaine, and it’s a formula that has seen the business boom, with their straps being used by some of the biggest names in music.
“The business has grown consistently, but the guitar straps have really taken off,” says Nigel. “It was just Alaine and myself, then James joined the business two years ago and is a great asset. He does all the photography and makes all the belts, wallets and watchstraps.
Guitar straps became a part of the business in 2009, and they’ve taken off so much that Craig came into the business to help. We’re all partners, the boys became business partners last year, and are steadily learning all parts and processes of the business.”
The first thing that hits you when you walk into Heistercamp’s Butstone Farm workshop, after negotiating the geese and pygmy goats that watch over this small wooden haven, is the smell. The rich, heady aroma of leather. Lots of it.
Completed straps in shades such as chilli, turmeric, curry, anise, clove, cumin and peppercorn hang alongside portraits of the guitarists who use them, looking down on the array of vintage machines and tools gathered by the family over several decades. A window stretches the full length of the building, offering uninterrupted views of this unspoilt swathe of the south west. It’s about as idyllic a workplace as you’ll find.
The machines in Heistercamp’s workshop have been accrued over decades
“We sort of take it for granted what a nice place it is,” admits Nigel. “It’s not until someone comes to visit and comments on it, and says ‘oh what a nice place’ that you think about it. I’m always either out there cutting grass or I’m in here in the workshop. James was just coming up to secondary school age when we decided to move here. In Buckinghamshire, it’s all push push push. We’d always fancied a bit of land, but there’s no way we could afford it up in Bucks, it’s ridiculous money. We started looking at the odd small farm and this one came up in 1998.”
The first prominent artist to use Heistercamp straps was New York singer-songwriter Willy Mason – and Ronnie Wood, Royal Blood’s Mike Kerr, Savages, HAIM, Richard Hawley, Pendulum, Courtney Barnett and Nick Mulvey have since been added to the list of happy customers on their roster.
“We find guitarists are very enthusiastic people, they send us photos of the straps on their guitars in action. They often want one for every guitar they’ve got, and that’s brilliant,” says Nigel, who with the rest of the family regularly travels the 120 miles north to Bristol to discover new acts and indulge their passion for live music.
54-inch square hides, delivered from Italy, ready for cutting to size
“I’d rather work directly with the acts if we can. They really like the straps. Mike Kerr’s had quite a lot more since the initial one, Perry from Pendulum has had a couple, and Reef absolutely love them. You can’t beat word of mouth, can you? We’re big music fans ourselves and it adds to the satisfaction. You can get enthusiastic about a strap because of the band. Although we really enjoy making all of our products, we don’t get to see them in the limelight like our guitar straps.”
The strap-making process begins when one of the taeam selects a 54-inch square shoulder hide from 28 colour varieties, sourced in Italy. They use a plough gauge to cut a strip of leather to size, a narrow strip is cut for the buckle pieces and a third strip is cut from either smooth leather or suede for the strap lining. The underside of the primary leather is roughened and glued to the lining before being cut out.
The strap holes are made using an oval punch and lacquer is applied to the strap edges, the strap and buckle pieces are stictched in and holes are cut for standard button sizes or strap locks. Buckles in antique brass or silver, gold or pewter are fitted and the strap is given a final inspection before being cleared to leave the workshop.
The custom-made buckles come in antique silver and brass, gold and pewter
While there’s no such thing as a typical job, as each strap is spec’d by its future owner, the whole process can take around an hour. These are bespoke straps, and they don’t come cheap, but the company prides itself on its personal service and its ethical ethos.
Every hole in every Heistercamp strap is made by hand with an oval punch
“We’d love it to all be British, but for the look and quality we’re after we found Italian tanneries suit our needs perfectly,” says Nigel.
“We always try to give the best service we can, and get a lot of comments about our service. We go the extra mile and try to make sure the customer always knows where their strap is in the process. We often get custom requests. Jack from Reef plays almost at knee height, so we had to make two extra-long straps for him and he loves them.
Nigel applying the Heistercamp logo to a freshly-made strap
“Our straps will last. We offer a lifetime guarantee, so if anything goes wrong, which is very rare, we always put it right. It’s like our belts – people will say they’ve lost weight and ask us to shorten it or put more holes in. It’s service really. If you can offer a good service, people will talk about you. If there’s an up-and-coming band we like, we’ll help them with straps – we like that side of things.”
With celebrity guitarists queuing up to get their hands on Heistercamp straps and word of mouth spreading fast through the guitar community, the team are determined not to expand at the cost of their old-fashioned values of reliability and high-quality customer service. In short, they’ll be keeping it in the family.
The Heistercamp family (left to right): James, Alaine, Nigel and Craig
“I don’t want to get too big,” declares Nigel. “I’ve been there with the repair side. At the moment it’s family, and Alaine and I are building it up with the boys so they can take it to the next stage. How they will take it, I don’t know, but at the moment I’d rather keep it smaller, keep the service good and maintain the personal touch.”