John Hagger, founder of Tanner Bates:
Leather making and working are part of our national fabric and I am proud to be one of the few makers still employing these traditions of crafting and using the leather that we are famous for throughout the world.
I started working with leather after a mid life change.
My grandfather was a leather guilder and before him the family were glovers.
I trained in Walsall as a saddler and bridle maker because I wanted to learn how to work with leather in the traditional way. Even though my interest is not equestrian related the influence is evident in my designs.
I love the factories, foundries and tanneries of Walsall and especially the oak bark tannery in East Devon. Wherever possible I use materials made there.
In my training we were given the finished hides and taught the techniques of working but there was something missing. I needed to know the stage before. I wanted to understand how that cows hide ended up as bridle leather on my workbench.
After relocating to Devon I began a 2 year period of self styled study investigating traditional, pre-industrial leather making techniques. I established links with interested tutors at Northampton University and spent many hours in museum libraries. I am fascinated at the way we can make leather just from animal skin and tree barks. The transformation is alchemy.
I discovered Bakers Tannery in Colyton, East Devon. They tan their hides with oak bark from the Lake District in huge underground pits after which the hides are hand finished. It’s a process that takes almost 2 years and is a far cry from the automated factory production of modern world tanneries. Their leather is made in the old way and exactly suits my need for a more primitively produced leather.
The hides are processed with the minimum of treatments so that the distance between animal skin and finished product is as short as possible so that there can be no mistake that this product was cut from the skin of an animal.
In my work I select leather that carries the animal hallmarks, the stretch lines on the shoulder and the random scars and blemishes.
In making my products this combination of rich, rustic leather, my own traditional making technique and the product’s contemporary purpose is what fuels my creativity. There’s an ironic juxtaposition of tradition and technology.
The hides themselves, bursting with character, inspired the design of the Messenger and Baja bags.
Provenance is important. I know the people by name who make my raw materials. The buckles in the Walsall and Paris foundries, the leather from Colyton, I even know the man in the Lake District who coppices the oak trees to provide bark for the tannery.
From time to time I tan the skins of locally culled deer from the Dartington Estate and nearby Dartmoor. I also occasionally retrieve road kill transforming the skin of their slain carcasses into items of beauty.
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