Deaton Chaps – Helena Couple Hand-Produce Western Leggings

There is no doubt that Helena, Montana has hidden treasures galore.  From gold of the 1860s, to hidden geocaches of the modern-day and now to hidden businesses.  The creative, dedicated team work of Dennis & Sydney Deaton and their business Deaton Chaps proves to be another of Helena’s hidden gems.  The Deatons are a great example of the work ethic and creativity that make-up Helena, Montana.   

By Brian D’Ambrosio, for the Helena Tourism Alliance

While perhaps not as iconic as boots or hats, chaps hold a high place in the pecking order of western trimmings.

Dennis & Sydney Deaton

Dennis & Sydney Deaton

Worn over jeans, the joined leather leggings come crafted wide, flashy, or bushy, furnishing plush visuals to one’s getup. They have a functional side, too; cowboys on horseback rely on them to protect against burs, rope burns, or other hazards.

Dennis and Sydney Deaton of Helena’s Deaton Chaps believe that when it comes to chaps (pronounced sh-aps), it’s not the size of the operation that counts, but the readiness to satisfy and sustain target needs.

“We run our business out of about 120 square feet of space,” said Dennis Deaton. “It’s a 10 x 12 area – and we are busier than ever.”

Dennis said that the chapmaker’s essentials are deceptively simple.  Simplicity is the grandeur of his expression.

“I just need a sharp pair of scissors, a solid sowing machine, and some specialty tools,” he said. “It’s pretty basic.  The more fancy the chaps, the more tools you need. But as a whole, it doesn’t require much. We like to specialize in building one thing – and that’s chaps.”

Minimalism is both the process and outcome of his technical subtlety. Each chap starts with a roll of paper and, whenever possible, a customer’s measurements. Dennis doesn’t have to dig too deeply to explain his own unpretentious strengths.

“It takes knowledge and an eye for what it is that you are doing,” he said.

Deaton Chaps requires teamwork, too. Sydney Deaton handles most of the tricky detail work – the dying and painting, the fringe-twisting, the trim-cutting.

On this particular week, orders ship to Virginia, Vermont, and Canada.

Dennis cuts all the fringe on a pair of chaps by hand.

Dennis cuts all the fringe on a pair of chaps by hand.

“We send them all over the world and have a wholesaler in Germany,” said Dennis. “We send them to Texas to guys who are riding in heavy brush country.”

Chaps fall into different categories: riding or showing chaps, cowboy chaps, and other more fancy types.

Chinks – a Spanish word describing half-length chaps that end two to four inches below the knee – are approximately 80% of their adult business. Chinks generally have long fringe at the bottom and along the sides.  (The other 20% of the inventory at Deaton Chaps is related to kids’ rodeo chaps.)

“I personally would call chaps a luxury compared to a necessity,” said Dennis. “But, then again, there are outfitters or people who are in the cold weather and do a lot of riding or guiding, and it protects their legs and keeps them safe. For the bull riders and rodeo riders, it’ll give them a little more grip in the saddle.”

“Some people don’t want a luxury pair but a working pair,” said Sydney. “Some want something flashy for show.”

Deaton Chaps formed after Dennis found extra work at a friend’s saddle-making and repair business. Chaps were a smaller part of that company’s output.

“I was in the cattle business at the time,” said Dennis. “I put in 15 hours a week helping him.”

Further work and knowledge flowed and flowed. Eventually, he had all of the necessary equipment and know-how, and “it turned into something,” said Dennis. “That was 21 years ago.”

Between 2008 and 2010, Deaton Chaps was in its experimental stages, building approximately 12 pair of chaps yearly.

Then they opened up their business to the internet and millions of buyers searching the world at their fingertips.

“After we went on the internet,” said Dennis, “we went from making a few pair to 200 to 300 pair a year.”

“EBay started it all for us,” he added. “After we had been on EBay, when you entered chaps or chinks on a normal search engine, we were almost guaranteed to be found on the first or second page. We built up a good of enough presence on EBay to put us in higher search engine results.”

Sydney Deaton handles most of the tricky detail work – the dying and painting, the fringe-twisting, the trim-cutting.

Sydney Deaton handles most of the tricky detail work – the dying and painting, the fringe-twisting, the trim-cutting.

“Five years ago we started on Facebook,” said Sydney, who is also in charge of the company’s social media management and bookkeeping. “It’s been amazing. We don’t pay. We post and we form contacts with western groups.”

The Deatons deliver a niche with people who support the idea that something made wholly from human hands is a little more precious than something which is not. At a crowded party, we tend to gravitate to familiar faces we know and enjoy. Brands are no different. Familiarity with the faces behind our merchandise is appealing.

“Dennis cuts all the fringe on a pair of chaps by hand,” said Sydney.

Added Dennis: “Those bigger shops are not producing what we make. They use clippers and machines. When you buy a pair off of the shelf in a department store, the quality is so different. It is machine cut.”

Dennis & Sydney Deaton

Dennis & Sydney Deaton at work.

A pair of “involved” chaps can take up to two weeks to perfect.

“I can get caught up with the stitching,” said Dennis. “The stitching can take anywhere from a half an hour to three days, because I won’t tolerate the stitching being mediocre. The whole process is interesting. You start with a big piece of leather that takes up the whole table, and then a couple of hours later, you have a pair of chaps.”

Sometimes the leather is a soft and sinuous skin and at other times a much stiffer pelt is demanded.

“It all depends on the job,” said Rick. “With a zip-up, form-fitting chap, you would want them to be supple and comfortable, to move easier when they are bending the knees. A working pair would be a little lighter.”

Dennis said that quality is a nonnegotiable priority.

“The funny thing is that when you build something for a lifetime, there is not a lot of repeat business.”

Deaton Chaps doesn’t advertise, allowing its product to stand as its own testimony and effectively communicate the company’s mission. Nevertheless, the couple makes no superlative claims.
“We are not saying that we are the best out there,” said Dennis. “But I will always argue that you will never find anything better out there for the price.”

Indeed, Deaton Chaps is the byproduct of a good idea and picky expectations. Dennis and Sydney continually evaluate their business’s success one stitch at a time.

“I don’t believe that I’ve ever turned out the perfect pair of chaps,” said Dennis. “When I stop getting better at it, I believe that I will quit.”

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