In many Asian martial art systems, particularly those from the easternmost countries, a belt forms part of the uniform worn during training. Often, the colour of the belt denotes the rank the wearer holds within that system, with rank generally reflecting technical proficiency or expertise. The founder of Judo, Jigoro Kano, introduced this practice to the Asian martial arts. The most well known arts—Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Judo, and others, in all their variations—typically follow this practice.
Beginning practitioners usually wear a white belt, and the belt colours change according to rank. Each martial art system will have its own code for ranks, but darker colours generally denote higher ranks. In most systems, the black belt denotes a significant step forward. In some systems, black belt members are recognised as advanced students, while in other systems, only experts or instructors may be granted black belt status. Within many systems, there are different levels of black belt rank (typically referred to as Dan levels or degrees), rather than a single black belt rank.
The important thing to bear in mind is that each individual martial art organisation will have its own rank system, and ranks do not necessarily hold the same meaning between organisations. For example, in one organisation, it may take most students a few years of training to attain black belt status, while in another organisation, there could be a minimum requirement of 10 years of solid training to attain black belt status. The same applies to Dan levels; one organisation may require only a few years of training (or less) to advance through black belt ranks, while another organisation may require many years of training.
Premium martial art belts
Coloured belts tend to be worn for only a few months to a few years, since students will generally move through the basic and intermediate ranks relatively quickly. Black belts, on the other hand, will tend to be worn for years—perhaps even decades—and certainly past the point where the outermost layer of material has worn away. Not surprisingly, it is common for coloured belts to be available only as relatively cheap, mass-produced items, while black belts can vary tremendously in terms of price and quality.
Many companies offer premium martial art belts, which are much more expensive and of much higher quality and durability than typical belts. Many of these companies, such as Tokaido, Shureido, and Hirota, are based in Japan. Many of them have been around for decades; Tokaido was established in the mid-1950s, not all that long after World War II ended. While there are various companies outside Japan that make premium belts, there seem to be relatively few.
In the United States of America, the two companies that I have heard the most about are Eosin Panther (established in 1974) and Kataaro (established in 2003). Bearing in mind that I live in Australia, on the other side of the world, I have so far been only able to go on what I have heard other people say about these companies. In general, Eosin Panther has an excellent reputation built up over 48 years in business. Kataaro has been around for only 19 years, and over that time seems to have gone from a good reputation to an excellent reputation. In researching these companies (briefly), I looked at written accounts, photographs, and a few video reviews on YouTube.
While I have a Tokaido black belt from many years ago (albeit probably not one of their premium range; I will say more on this below), as well as several black belts sourced locally, I was interested to see what a modern, premium black belt was like. Are these kinds of belt noticeably superior to typical belts, and do they live up to the praise they receive on the Internet?
Kataaro deluxe cotton belt
While I had heard the term many times over the years, I did find myself wondering: what actually is brushed cotton? It seems to be cotton fabric that has been physically brushed with fine metal brushes to raise the finer fibres from the material to produce a softer texture. Brushed cotton is apparently not just softer to the touch, but also more durable and a better insulator than normal cotton fabric, though also prone to shrinkage.
The electronic ordering process was smooth and trouble-free (as it should be), and Kataaro started manufacturing the belt the same day I placed the order. (It helps that their time zone is half a day behind Western Australia’s, so my evening is their morning.) People ordering from outside the USA will need to verify for Kataaro that they (the buyers) will be responsible for paying any import or customs fees that are required by the destination country. The Australian Border Force indicates that goods over $1,000 (Australian Dollars; AUD) in value are liable for import fees. In this case (a single belt, less than $100 AUD in value), there were no fees to be paid.
Bearing in mind that this particular belt was completely standard (no embroidery and no special instructions), production took one week. This was well within their indicated production time of 10 business days. An embroidered belt would take much longer to make; Kataaro’s website will provide an estimated production time based on the options the buyer chooses.
Delivery to Australia took just over a week through FedEx, with a day’s delay in China. And so it was that a fairly nondescript, small cardboard box arrived at my doorstep.
Packaging and accessories
It seems that Kataaro has become more cost-efficient with its packaging over time, as the box was roughly 17 x 15.5 x 5.5 cm (around 6.7 x 6.1 x 2.2″) in size, and just big enough to hold a single, rolled-up belt, as shown below. In at least some cases in the past, it seems they used slightly larger packaging than needed, then filled the empty space with protective material. I shot this initial batch of photographs hand-held with my Nikon D700 and Nikkor AF 85 mm f/1.4, mostly at f/2.8 or slightly smaller.
Inside the cardboard box, the belt sat neatly rolled up and tied with a silvery ribbon, all within clear plastic wrapping sealed with a Kataaro sticker. Upon opening the box, we are greeted with the company’s catchphrase, “You’ve Earned It.”
Note the kerning (adjustment of spacing between characters) in the “You” of “You’ve Earned It.” That is a small touch, and one that most people probably would not notice, but it is a sign of good attention to detail. The plastic wrapping seemed thick and durable—probably more than actually needed to protect the belt during shipping, but another sign of care on the company’s part.
Underneath the belt were some cards and an order slip with a friendly handwritten note on it from Elliott. If you are reading this post, Elliott, then thank you for your care in preparing the package for me, and you will be pleased to know that the package arrived in perfect condition.
The two cards were Kataaro’s business card (shown on the left in the two photographs below) and a promotional card about their Free Rank Stripes for Life offer. In essence, if you have rank stripes on your Kataaro belt and you gain new ranks, you can qualify for free stripes to be added by Kataaro; you just have to pay for the shipping. (There are some conditions on this, but visit Kataaro’s website to see the details.)
As mentioned, the belt arrived in a single roll, which is quite different from how locally sourced belts are packaged—folded over in half, then half again. Having the belt rolled up means that there are no specific folding points in the belt, which can take some time to smooth out.
Within the plastic wrapping, underneath the belt, Kataaro includes a card with care instructions on one side and sizing information on the other. The card warns that the belt may shrink if washed, and I will say more on this below.
Kataaro allows for variations from –2″ (around 5.1 cm) to +3″ (around 7.6 cm) from the ordered length. Bear in mind that these variations are, effectively, halved in terms of actually wearing the belt. If a belt is 2 cm longer than ordered, the ends will hang just 1 cm longer (since there are two ends) than they otherwise would have. In my view, Kataaro’s manufacturing tolerance allows for reasonably tight control, with minimal or no effect on visual appearance when the belts are worn.
This specific belt was ordered at 130″ (330.2 cm) long and 2″ (5.1 cm) wide, and with the soft core option should have been around 4 mm (0.16″) thick. Kataaro’s quality control process measured the belt at 131″ (332.7 cm) as manufactured, but I expect they were simply rounding to the nearest inch. I measured the belt at 331.4 cm long (closer to 130.5″ … and very, very close to the target length), 2″ wide (5.1 cm, as expected), and 5 mm thick (rather than 4 mm).
I took some photographs of the belt straight out of the wrapping, and although there were some small pieces of cardboard or miscellaneous materials, the belt was packaged well overall. In the picture below, the evenness of the stitching on the belt is immediately noticeable.
Kataaro goes for a relatively small and discreet style of manufacturer’s label on the belt. This is quite different from the Japanese belts I have seen, where the label announces the manufacturer’s name quite clearly and, in many cases, the buyer can choose an organisation’s logo (typically a Karate organisation) to be on the label as well.
Looking at the ends of the belt, everything has been finished to a very high standard. There are 13 lines of stitching, exactly in accordance with the specifications for the options I chose. The lines of stitching are even throughout the entire length of the belt (with only minor variations that are not easily noticeable), and the ends are secured with several extra lines of stitching running perpendicular to the length of the belt.
We will take a closer look at the evenness of the stitching below, but the actual feeling of the belt reminded me immediately of an old Tokaido belt that I had bought almost 20 years ago. Not having looked at that belt for some time, I was curious as to how the manufacturing quality compared … bearing in mind that we would typically expect manufacturing processes to improve over time.
As it turned out, while the stitching on the Tokaido belt is good, there was no comparison to the evenness of the stitching on the Kataaro belt. Most lines on the Tokaido are straight and evenly spaced out, but there are places where an extra line had been added to address a wider-than-intended gap. These issues occurred away from the ends of the belt, so you would not see any problems in the photograph below, apart from the fact that one end of the Tokaido belt is clearly not cut ‘square’ (not ideal, but also not too uncommon in the belts I have seen over the years). In contrast, both ends of the Kataaro belt are essentially perfectly ‘square’—just as we would expect from a premium belt.
As a reminder, we are looking at belts manufactured around 20 years apart by different companies in different countries, and one is advertised as a premium belt, while the other was not. (From one perspective, all of Tokaido’s products might be considered ‘premium,’ but as far as I am aware, the Tokaido belt I bought was not from one of their high-end ranges.)
The quality of the Kataaro belt did make me think back to the Warrior Silver belts that were available locally (here in Perth, Western Australia) many years ago. The company is ‘Warrior’ and the product line is ‘Silver’; while the company is still around and that product line does still exist, the company changed owners a few years back, and the manufacturing process is not the same as it was before. At the time, in the mid-2000s, I was responsible for sourcing several black belts for newly-promoted black belt students, and the Warrior Silver range had a very good reputation. I had removed all the manufacturer’s labels from those belts a long time ago, but from memory they had been made in Taiwan.
The Warrior Silver belts were definitely not a premium product in terms of price, but I always remembered their quality as being excellent (which made them remarkably good value for money). When I pulled them out of storage, I found that my recollection was accurate. In the photograph below, you can see a Warrior Silver belt on the left, and while the belt is narrower and has fewer lines of stitching, the belt is finished very well and the lines are very evenly spaced. In the middle is the Kataaro belt, and on the right is the Tokaido belt—though now looking at a section near the middle, rather than close to the ends. If you look closely, you can see some of the unevenness in the Tokaido’s stitching.
Note that the Warrior Silver and Tokaido belts were manufactured at 4 cm width, as compared to the Kataaro belt’s 5.1 cm width, so there is no optical problem in the picture below. The belts on the left and right are, in fact, narrower than the belt in the middle. (I took this photograph with my Nikon D70S and its accompanying zoom lens.)
I cannot remember the exact costs, but the Warrior Silver belt would have been priced slightly higher (a few dollars) than a typical coloured belt. The Tokaido would have been around $30, from memory. The Kataaro cost closer to $100. (Check Kataaro’s website and apply your local currency conversion to find out what it would cost you, remembering that this is for the belt itself, without shipping or customs fees.) In terms of value for money, the Warrior Silver (of almost 20 years ago) would be the very clear winner here.
In terms of feeling in the hand, the Warrior Silver is essentially the same as a typical coloured belt; soft to the touch, and very pliable. Nowhere near as pliable as a sash or scarf, but very easy to tie and fold. The Tokaido, which I remember being advertised as a ‘cotton canvas’ belt, is easily the stiffest out of the three belts pictured above. It would take some breaking in before it would hang nicely. I chose the soft core option for the Kataaro belt, and while it felt almost as stiff as the Tokaido belt, it hung down (straight) surprisingly well despite not being broken in.
The belt in detail
To take close-up images of the Kataaro belt, I shot with my Nikon D70S and Nikkor AF-S 18–70 mm f/3.5–4.5 DX, all at 70 mm focal length and f/8 or smaller aperture on a tripod. This zoom lens has a much smaller minimum focusing distance than the 85 mm prime lens, and I generally use it for close-up product photography in a pinch. If I were shooting more seriously, I would have set up the lighting more carefully and used an actual macro lens, but all of the photographs I took for this post are more for illustrative purposes than for detailed analysis.
The following seven photographs all show the same side of the belt (the label side), but at seven different points along the length of the belt.
First, here we are at the label end of the belt. The stitching on the right side of the photograph below is slightly narrower than on the left side, but still relatively even, and with the outermost line at a good distance from the edge of the belt. For best structural integrity, I believe we would not want to see either of the outermost lines being too close to the edges of the belt, and we would not want any of the other lines to be unevenly spaced from each other.
Moving up along the belt by around 60 cm (2′), it looks like the lines of stitching have improved in their evenness. There are some slight variations visible if we are examining the work in detail, but overall the lines are very even. The outermost lines are at a uniform distance from the edges of the belt.
Moving up further, the lines of stitching continue to be very even, and the outermost lines have maintained the same distance from the edges of the belt.
In the photograph below, we are now at the middle of the belt. The lines of stitching towards the middle of the belt are even, but the outermost line on the right is slightly closer to the edge of the belt than the outermost line on the left. Both of those outermost lines are still a good distance from the edges.
As we move further along, past the halfway point, the lines of stitching are very even, and the outermost lines of stitching have returned to a similar distance from the edges of the belt.
In the photograph below, we are now around 60 cm (2′) from the other end of the belt from the end with the manufacturer’s label. The lines of stitching are evenly spaced from each other, and the outermost lines of stitching are at a uniform distance from the edges of the belt.
Here we are at the opposite end of the belt; still on the same side of the belt as the label, but at the other end. The stitching work is uniform across the width of the belt. Both ends of the belt have been finished in the same way, with the lines running right up to the end of the belt, then secured with multiple passes of stitching going across the width of the belt.
In the two photographs below, we see all four sides of the ends of the belt. In the second picture, I have just flipped both ends over, so the right end in the second photograph is the reverse of the right end in the first photograph. (Note the line of stitching running across the width of the belt, but a little up from the end; that is the stitching securing the top of the manufacturer’s label to the belt.)
The folded edge of the belt is, as expected, neatly finished. This would be the easier side of the belt for the manufacturer to handle, as the surface material is simply being folded over the core material within the belt.
On the other side, we see how Kataaro has handled the seam running the entire length of the belt. The workmanship is perfectly neat along the entire length of the belt, as far as I can see.
From a close inspection of the belt, there were four extraneous threads, and three of them were barely noticeable (all less than 2 mm long); I suspect most people simply would not have noticed them at all. The fourth extraneous thread was at one end of the belt, and less than 4 mm long. This was still at a tighter tolerance level than in many other belts I have seen, and easily trimmed. If I wanted to bother taking a photograph of it, I would have had to go to a lot of trouble to capture it properly—exactly the right angle, pinpoint focus, and excellent lighting. (For anyone who might like a visual challenge, take a look at the four pictures just above. That fourth extraneous thread is in three of those pictures … and I cannot see it, despite knowing roughly where it was before I trimmed it; it was on the end opposite the label end.)
Note that these extraneous threads would have come about due to a slight excess of material, and were not loose. All of the stitching throughout the belt is perfectly secure.
Feel and wear
This belt had the soft core option, which in Kataaro’s words consists of “two layers of 100% cotton white strapping core.” The company cautions that the stiff core option is very stiff, and belts made with that option will take some breaking in. Brand new and out of the box, I wondered if Kataaro had accidentally made this belt with the stiff core option rather than the soft core option. The belt thickness is 5 mm (rather than the 4 mm noted for the soft core option), and the belt felt stiff; far stiffer than the vast majority of belts I have seen over the years. Even though it had been many years since I handled the Tokaido belt shown above, the feeling of the Kataaro belt immediately reminded me of the older belt. Comparing them directly, the Tokaido is slightly thicker and slightly stiffer.
Wearing the belt provided some assurance that it had, indeed, been made with the soft core option; the belt hung down perfectly when worn. A belt made with the stiff core option would not hang down like this, at this stage of its life.
For this particular belt, the specification was size 8 with a target manufactured length of 130″ (approximately 330 cm). As mentioned above, I measured the belt’s length as 331.4 cm (approximately 130.5″). After soaking in cold water for several minutes, and then hanging out to dry under shelter (i.e., not in direct sunlight), the length of the belt shrank to 324.2 cm (approximately 127.6″). This represented a loss of 7.2 cm (around 2.8″) and roughly 2% shrinkage. After a couple more cycles of soaking in cold water and then drying, the length of the belt shrank to 322.1 cm (approximately 126.8″). So far, with around an hour’s total soaking time in cold water, the belt clearly lost the most length after the first soaking, and is now 9.3 cm (3.7″) shorter than its original length. This represents 2.8% shrinkage in length so far. The belt also seems to have shrunk from 5.1 cm to 5 cm in width, but the thickness remains at 5 mm.
I expect that the belt will shrink further if soaked again, and perhaps will shrink significantly more if soaked in warm water, but I have not tried that as yet. While it is apparently possible to stretch a belt out to regain some length, I expect that most people would not bother. As evident from the manufacturer’s own advice and from people’s experiences posted on the Internet, it makes sense to order the belt a bit longer than needed so as to allow for shrinkage. (Kataaro suggests that shrinkage would be around 5% to 8% depending on the specific type of belt, and those estimates would probably apply if someone is actually machine-washing the belt, rather than just soaking it as I have.)
Incidentally, the colour of the belt does not appear to have been affected at all by a few cycles of soaking and hang-drying. (And I would have expected this to be the case.) If I were to machine-wash the belt, I would expect to see wear on the edges of the belt and possibly some fading in colour. One wash might not make a noticeable difference, but regular machine-washing almost certainly would. Machine-drying, with the relatively high heat involved, would probably cause a lot of shrinkage. In the past, albeit with typical coloured belts, machine-washing and machine-drying have caused significant enough shrinkage that the belt effectively goes down one size (e.g., a size 8 belt becomes a size 7 belt). Not recommended, unless you are specifically aiming for maximal shrinkage and maximal deterioration in colour.
This brief foray into the world of premium martial art belts came about because I was curious as to just ‘how good’ a premium belt could be. While I had not previously come across premium belts, I had seen a wide range of quality of belts in the past. The vast majority of black belts (and indeed, coloured belts) I have seen have all been serviceable. Looking back, the Warrior Silver belts of almost 20 years ago were by far the standout in terms of value for money and excellence in manufacturing standards, given that they were not premium belts. You could still obtain Warrior Silver belts a few years ago (I have not checked on availability recently), and they were good … but not as good as in the past, in my view.
The Kataaro belt has, at this very early stage of its life, easily lived up to the ‘premium’ and ‘deluxe’ descriptors. On every aspect that I have looked at above, it is far and away the best made belt I have examined in person. If I were to nitpick, I could say that it would be nice for it to be a darker black than it is, but perhaps someone looking for a really dark black should go for the satin option. From my limited experience with satin belts, they do subjectively look darker than the cotton belts.
While it might seem that I have written quite a lot above, there is more that I could write, and I may well add some updates as time allows. For example, it will be interesting to see how soaking in warm water affects shrinkage. (I am not planning to do any machine-washing or machine-drying, as it is already clear that they would have significant effects on most types of belt.) If you have any specific questions, feel welcome to leave a reply, and I will try to take care not to delete it amongst all the spam.
For now, congratulations to Kataaro on crafting an excellent black belt, and one that I expect any serious martial artist would be exceptionally pleased to own and wear.
Update from 8 June 2022
After a few more soaking and drying cycles, but using mild warm water instead of cold water, the length of the belt seems to have stabilised at around 320 cm (126″), some 11.4 cm (4.5″) shorter than its original length. This represents shrinkage of around 3.4%, noting that I have not tried stretching the belt at all, as I wanted to see what its natural shrinkage would be like. Kataaro provides some instructions and a photograph to guide those who would like to stretch their belts, but I suspect most people will find it easier to simply order a belt one size larger than needed, if they are concerned about shrinkage.
Width remains at 5 cm (just under 2″) and thickness is now perhaps slightly less than 5 mm, but still closer to 5 mm than 4 mm to my eye, judged against a ruler. Surface material, stitching, and straightness are all essentially the same as when new—only to be expected, given that I have just soaked and dried the belt under gentle conditions, without any agitation or mechanical wear.
One thing that has changed noticeably is that the belt is much more pliable than it was when brand new. It still hangs straight and is still much firmer than the typical mass-produced belt, but it is easier to bend and twist than before. (The belt is now significantly more pliable than the Tokaido belt.) This is what I expected a soft core belt to feel like, and I suppose provides further confirmation that this belt was made with a soft core rather than a stiff core.
Kataaro recommends using a lint roller for cleaning, and that seems a sound idea; I used a lint brush to good effect. The belt seems to pick up fine particles quite readily, and while these would generally not be visible in normal use, I would want to give the belt a careful cleaning before any close-up photography.