Words by Travis Blake
Devon based craft leather goods, created with British hides featuring unique and stylish designs, which incorporates a Leather School for aspiring artisans to create their own individual pieces.
A most amazing natural material, manipulated by mankind, to become an essential covering for endless objects including ourselves. Yes, I’m talking about leather, from our vehicle interiors to the trousers I am wearing as I write, its durability and use is almost limitless. Us Humans have been leather making for a remarkably long period of time, by our meagre standards, a staggering seven thousand years apparently!
To briefly explain the process of how we get to the material of leather, the skins of animals are made up of three layers, an outer, a thicker inner and an under layer. It is this inner layer, the Corium, after it has been separated from the layers that sandwich it, that is used to make leather. There are a couple of descriptive terms to note also, a hide generally refers to a larger animal and a skin, calfskin for example, is used for a smaller creature. Once the inner layer is removed it needs to be processed to turn it into a material that has a long life rather than something that will naturally decay. This is achieved by the process of tanning, which will stop the hide from decomposing, by using agents to treat the material including tannins from vegetables and tree bark, salts with chromium sulphate and oils found naturally in fish and other animals.
There is evidence that the Ancient Greeks had leather crafted sandals as early as 1200 BC, but from the Middle Ages the use of leather increased and was used in furniture, dining chairs being a popular use and also in transportation seating particularly saddles for horse riders. The industrialisation of the 18th and 19th Centuries meant that leather could be worked in many more and efficient ways which created demand for lighter and more durable leather in a myriad of applications from machine drive belts to fashionable garments. In the United Kingdom at the turn of the Twentieth Century nearly a third of all horse saddles and harnesses used throughout the land, were produced in the Black Country town of Walsall. Typically these leather makers and workers were small backstreet concerns, working long hours for short pay and often in tough conditions. As the horse became a less important power source, due to industrial and mechanical advancements, many of these cottage businesses had to diversify or face extinction as the manufacture of saddles and yolks became less profitable. The demand for leather goods had shifted to more personal and individual items such as bags and wallets.
It is here in the wilds of the West Midlands and in particular sunny Walsall that our story for this edition of Handmade in Britain begins. Enter our protagonist John Hagger, as a man in the process of a mid life change, who decides to retrain and become a leather maker at the age of 45, he describes it as a calling and rather wonderfully says “It felt like coming home”. Interestingly, and perhaps surprisingly, John started to develop his skills and learn his craft by working on the equestrian leather tack that the region was famous for, although these horse centric products are not what he produces today. Training as a saddler and bridle maker, allowed John to acquire the skills and knowledge he needed to work leather in the traditional ways. There is a link to leatherwork in John’s genealogy, his Grandfather was a leather guilder in Soho and prior to this the family were glovers, suggesting that leather is somehow in John’s DNA.
Having fallen in love with the factories and tanneries of the Black Country and particularly Walsall, John relocated to the picturesque beauty, and arguably England’s prettiest county, of Devon to realise his vision and start up his own leatherworks, Tanner Bates. Many of the component parts of goods created by Tanner Bates are sourced from the West Midlands area where John cut his teeth and he uses leather from a local tannery, Bakers Tannery, in East Devon, which is thought to be Britain’s only remaining oak bark tannery and is run by water wheel. The leather they supply uses oak tree bark that is grown in the Lake District ensuring that the fine pieces that are produced by Tanner Bates have a very British supply chain. For John, giving his products a provenance by knowing his supply chain is very important and this adds to the very special nature of the items that are made at Tanner Bates, he knows the man that grows the trees, that supply the bark, to tan the hides, to make the goods.
You can see a real passion in the work of Tanner Bates, and this runs right through every item they make and there is real attention to detail, from the selection of speciality leathers supplied by small independent tanneries that produce leather using traditional processes that in turn ensure that the goods will lst and mature to full character. Tanner Bates will also source materials from other parts of the globe, but again only using the finest international leather, with particular favourites being Florence in Italy, where colourful fine quality hides are available and also the Horween Tannery in Chicago, purveyors of excellent horse hide.
There are of course a varied selection of leather goods on offer from Tanner Bates, available via the website, or directly at the on site shop, (details at the end of the article) from a simple Dartington bookmark priced at £15, to a Crocodile Skin Billfold Wallet at £175. Tanner Bates supplies a fine range of leather bags from the Mini Baja Travel Bag, priced from £165, to the impressive and stunning Devon Messenger Bag at £1,180. The company also produces some beautiful leather watch straps including the Nato style strap at £59 and the Believer Bespoke from £120 available in a range of colours and leathers. Thankfully for me Tanner Bates also offers a variety of superb leather belts, as mine has seen better days and will need replacing shortly, I also happen to have some very good friends who live nearby. They say if you take care of your belt it will last you a lifetime, which makes the finest Oak Bark Leather Belt and a pot of Tanner Bates hide Food at a combined price of £134, seem like a shrewd investment.
John’s love, passion and all encompassing immersion in the art and craft of leather making goes further than just creating products, his vast acquired knowledge of the subject has allowed him to show others how to work this wonderful natural material. Operating from the same premises as Tanner Bates and utilising the experience and instruction of their leather makers, “Leather School”, part of the U.K Leather Federation, specialises in the teaching of traditional leather work from the basics and essentials right up to advanced level specialist leather making skills. Leather School also run a range of very popular “In-a-Day” courses, one of which has really caught my eye, “In-a-Day Belt”. On this one day course beginning at 10am until 5pm, students learn how to hand craft their very own top quality leather belt, from selecting the leather all the way through to leaving with a completed belt, at an incredibly reasonable price of £105 (including belt).
If you are in need of a replacement for an old favourite leather bag, belt, watchstrap, or anything else leather for that matter, or you fancy spending some time learning and honing some new skills, get in touch with Tanner Bates for an altogether experience of leather.
Traditional English Leatherwork