Have you ever wondered why the very highest quality leather goods are so expensive? What, you might wonder could possibly be so different to justify the prices? Listen to the latest podcast from Andrew Green to find the answer. He talks to Andrew Parr, managing director of J&FJ Baker & Co Ltd, the last oak bark tannery left in the UK. They specialise in buying top quality hides, using a traditional tanning process, and producing the very best leather for shoe manufacturers, saddle and harness makers and other leather workers, at the top end of the market.
The interview uncovers a fascinating story, with many parallels to the decline of small local abattoirs. Once, there was not only an abattoir in every town and large village, but also a tannery too, indications of which today can only be found in names like ‘Tannery Lane’ and ‘Tanyard Farm’. These produced leather from locally-sourced hides and skins for local craftsmen to supply the local population. Today there are only 13 tannery businesses left in the UK, the largest of which is in Scotland. Together these have the capacity to tan less than a third of the hides and skins produced every year. As a result, hides and skin prices from abattoirs are largely dictated by the export market, principally to China, Turkey and Italy, which has declined in recent years, reducing the income for most abattoirs and being one of the factors that has led to further closures.
J&FJ Baker, however, still pay top prices for top quality hides, specially selected for them from local abattoirs by the hides and skins merchants they use.
Most tanning these days is done by a rapid process that takes only a few months. In contrast, it takes 12-months to make leather using the oak bark method. This makes it more expensive, but it also makes the finest leather, which looks better and lasts longer.
It is inspiring to hear how one firm has managed to buck the trend and thrive while working in economic and environmental harmony with its suppliers.
Photograph: Florian Lehmuth
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