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The Art and Science of Leather Tanning: A Journey of Learning and Tradition

By Katy Warriner of Warriner Leather Works

 

In 2023, I was awarded a bursary from the South West England Fibreshed to expand my knowledge of how an animal hide transforms into leather. This opportunity allowed me to delve deeply into the science behind leather tanning, enriching my craft and enabling me to think about offering new services to my local community. This post will walk you through my journey and discoveries in the fascinating world of leather tanning.

Expanding My Knowledge

Receiving the bursary from the South West England Fibreshed was a pivotal moment in my leatherworking career. The support enabled me to invest in specialised courses and materials necessary to continue my learning into the intricate process of leather tanning. My goal was not only to enhance my own understanding but also to develop skills that could benefit the local community. This course has allowed me to think about being able to offer tanning services in the future, filling a critical gap in our region, where there are limited options for farmers and hunters to have their hides processed.

Learning from Traditional Tanners

I used the bursary to enrol in home tanning online courses with Matt Richards from Traditional Tanners. This journey began with a basic bark tanning course, where I learned the fundamentals of transforming deer skin into leather. The process was both challenging and enlightening, laying the groundwork for my future endeavours.

Following the deer skin course, I moved on to tanning sheep skins with their fleece intact. This course provided a comprehensive understanding of sheep fleece tanning, a technique that enhances the texture and quality of the leather while preserving the wool’s natural beauty. Working with fleece-on skins introduced me to the delicate balance of maintaining the fleece’s integrity while effectively tanning the hide.

The final course, “Soft vs. Dense,” offered the most in-depth learning experience to date. Here, I explored the nuances of creating both supple, waxy leather and more robust, dense leather suitable for heavier items like bags. Understanding these different tanning techniques has been invaluable, allowing me to tailor my process to various types of hides and their intended uses. Whether producing soft, flexible leather for garments or dense, durable leather for accessories, these skills have broadened my capabilities significantly.

Future Aspirations

This course has allowed me to think about being able to offer tanning services in the future, providing a valuable resource to local farmers and hunters. Currently, there are no tanning options available in our region, particularly for deer skins. Most hunted deer skins end up in landfills, a tragic waste of an incredible natural fibre. By learning these skills, I hope to preserve these hides and transform them into high-quality leather products. Our area has one organic sheepskin tannery but no facilities for cow hides or deer skins (there are currently no tanneries that will tan and return bovine hides either as leather or hair on). By learning the art of tanning, I aim to bridge this gap. While I can only handle up to 20 deer or sheep skins at a time (and this is for leather, for fleece I can take 5 skins) and only during the summer months, every hide I can save from the landfill and transform into beautiful leather is a step forward. This effort not only reduces waste but also supports local sustainability efforts by creating valuable products from what would otherwise be discarded.

The courses have deepened my understanding far beyond my initial expectations. I can now confidently tan deer hides to create soft, waxy pull-up leather as well as dense leather for sturdy bags. The fleece skins, in particular, are wonderful to work with, and I am excited to offer this service to those interested in heritage breeds within and beyond the Fibreshed community. Part of my bursary was also used to collaborate with local woodsmen to gather bark from felled trees. This initiative highlights a significant gap in the supply chain from farmers to abattoirs to tanneries, and from woodsmen to tanneries. By fostering these connections, I hope to create a sustainable and locally sourced tanning process. The collaboration with woodsmen has been particularly rewarding, as we work together to harvest high-tannin bark, an essential ingredient for vegetable tanning. This effort not only supports local forestry but also ensures that the bark is put to good use in traditional leather production.

The State of the UK Tanning Industry

The UK tanning industry is in a precarious state. In the past 70 years, we have lost over 400 tanneries, with only 23 remaining today. Of these, only four are traditional bark tanneries. The majority of our cattle hides (80%) are shipped abroad for tanning, 10% are discarded, and the remaining 10% are processed domestically. This decline is disheartening, especially given our rich history as a leading leather-producing nation. The current state of the industry underscores the importance of initiatives like mine, which aim to revive and sustain traditional tanning practices within the UK.

Continuing the Journey

My journey into leather production continues, focusing on deer hides from local hunters and expanding into sheep fleece tanning. I also plan to work with a local Cornish farmer who has a Belted Galloway herd, experimenting with tanning hair-on cowhides. Each new project presents unique challenges and learning opportunities, furthering my expertise and ability to offer diverse tanning services in the future. I am profoundly grateful to the South West England Fibreshed for their generous bursary. It has allowed me to delve deeply into the science of leather tanning, a craft that I engage with daily. This journey has not only enriched my skills but also opened up new avenues for sustainable and locally-sourced leather production. Moving forward, I aim to continue developing my tanning techniques, expanding my service offerings, and advocating for the revival of the UK tanning industry.

As we move through the seasons, my commitment to leatherworking and tanning grows stronger. By combining traditional techniques with modern learning, I aim to revive and sustain the leather industry in our region. Each hide tanned is a testament to the beauty and durability of leather, a material that has been cherished for centuries. If you would like more information about leather tanning or need assistance with your own leather projects, please don’t hesitate to reach out. Together, we can keep the tradition of British leather alive and thriving.

Until the next time

Warmest wishes,

Katy

 

 

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