It was a pretty dreary Friday morning in August as we headed off on a road trip* from the workshop to one of the tanneries that supply us with our leather, but this was no ordinary tannery- this tannery was the one and only Oak Bark Tannery in Britain, J&FJ Baker & Co so dreary turned to bright and excited.
The tannery buildings are incredible in their own right, built over 150 years ago they house a myriad of traditional processes that we were lucky enough to see in action.
Andrew, the fifth generation to carry on the historic, traditional methods started our tour right at the beginning, where the tan liquor is created. The oak bark is stripped from the trees in the spring, seasoned for three years and then ground down to small pieces, before being soaked in cold water.Only when the tan is strong enough (the colour of Guinness) will it be pumped to the tan yard ready to begin tanning the hides.
The raw hides come into the tannery salted for preservation, they are all West Country hides predominantly from Devon.
The first process is to de-hair them in the lime pits, the hides are in here for two weeks with no chemicals, just lime, so as to retain the strength and fibres in the leather. The solution used means that the hair is easily removed and the lime can be washed off so that there is a clean surface on the hide.
The hides are then taken to the tan yard, made up of 72 pits each with a different strength of tan liquor. When a hide first goes into the tan yard it goes into the pit with the weakest tan liquor, each week it will move through the pits, making its way to the pit with the strongest liquor, this takes three months. The hides are gently rocked by the water wheel to make sure that they are evenly tanned.
After three months, the hide comes off of their sticks and are layered, one of top of the other in deeper pits with oak bark flakes scattered in between them like a huge oak bark and hide sandwich. They stay here for 9 months. Then at the end of the 12 month process the hide is now leather and ready for the top secret finishing process.
We were blown away by our experience at the tannery with Andrew, our simplified version of the process is to give you an insight, only the lucky few will know the true wizardry that goes into creating such fantastic leather – we simply feel honoured to have been so close to it on that dreary Friday morning and extremely proud to be able to use the leather for our products.
*when we say road trip, the tannery is about an hour away, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have sweets and treats in the car for the journey does it!
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Scars, blemishes, irregular dyeing, parallel crease lines, surface white tallow are all natural and a part of the character of this unusual leather.