A World That Never Learns

Written by Mike Redwood

Dr. Mike Redwood, of Leather Naturally fame, humbly describes himself simply as a tanner; he has been lecturing, blogging and writing for the leather industry for over three decades. His article was first published in ‘International Leather Maker’ in September 2018.

Anyone who observes modern politics know how little we seem to learn from history. Be it economics, warfare, taxation or trade we have developed an approach to life that excels in repeating our mistakes. The problem in the modern communicative, globalised world is that these errors have much greater impact, much faster than ever before. Just think about the 2008 financial crash.

Innovation fits this picture too, judging by the leather industry, as looking around a trade fair in recent years one is struck by the determination of so many companies to base everything around what they term as classics, and to look at raw material as defining everything about the leather that can be made from it – aniline, pigmented, corrected etc.

At our Leather Naturally meeting earlier this year in Hong Kong, we were asked to ensure that all leather was promoted; not only “premium” leather. This was quite valid, but there is an exchange inherent in this. Whatever the grade, we should not transform them into commodity leather. In 2018 you cannot turn any hide or skin with a blemish, even a severe one, into something indistinguishable from a piece of plastic and expect it to achieve a high margin.

It is the hides and skins themselves that make leather such a premium material and their role in modern society depends on two aspects; their technical performance and their aesthetics. Neither can be simply defined and both are evolving all the time to match the needs and expectations of modern society. But keeping these two aspects in mind when talking with customers helps get the product right.

Technically minded readers

Most technically minded readers of this will know of Alfred Seymour-Jones as a founder of the International Union of Leather Technologists and Chemists Societies (IULTCS) in 1897, where he is described as a tanner from Wrexham, a small town in Wales.

What they do not know was that, for 150 years, the main tannery there was continuing developing and adapting leathers to fast changing business requirements. In 1777, it was the first tannery in the world to design a leather specifically for the textile industry.

The Wrexham tannery was founded in 1770 by John Peers and important fairs were held twice a year in the town. By serendipity Peers met John Smalley who was the original financial backer of Richard Arkwright; the inventor who adapted the spinning jenny and is accredited with initiating the industrialisation of the textile industry.

Arkwright’s frame was different from the spinning jenny in that it was a continuous spinner, winding yarn as it was spun, using a clever mechanism of several pairs of rollers moving at different speeds. The rollers were made of brass or steel. The bottom roller of each pair was covered in wood and fluted. The top rollers were covered in leather. The covering was introduced to form an elastic cushion to prevent the fibres from being cut between the two surfaces of metal. It needed to be thin and of an even thickness.

John Peers processed sheepskins from local mountain sheep that met these criteria. They were small and thin, and very level, without a thick neck; so a business soon began between them. This extended rapidly as the cotton industry grew in north west England and Peers had many clients for his alum tanned leather for rollers. As demand grew, Peers recognised that he needed to adapt his production for higher volume and value and moved to an oak bark tannage.

A basic bark tannage produced a leather that was dried by hanging from two hooks in the air and was known as a bazil. This method of drying allows the leather to shrink, and it will not be flat so this was remedied by “striking out”. The skins were removed from the tan pit and laid on a sloping table where they were worked by hand using “a square blade of a steel fixed in a wooden holder” just as we use today. The workman strikes the skin from the centre outwards which removes the shrinkage and excess tan liquor. The skins were then part dried, the process repeated and then fully dried.

This change was made by Evan Morris who was to take over the business in 1822. He appears to have been quite inventive and soon after he adapted a shaving process from the bovine industry to ensure an absolutely level substance and clean flesh. This was hand shaving using a two-handed double-edged knife. As farmers had introduced cross breeding to get animals with more meat, the skins had become chunkier and less level, especially down the backbone and into the neck.

The Wrexham tannery as founded in 1770

The Wrexham tannery, as founded in 1770 …

The tannery was sold again in 1858, after Morris had become invalided, and Alfred Seymour-Jones was a son of one of the two owners, entering the business at the age of 13. By 1858, the tannery had grown to a major industrial unit primarily on the success of their roller leather. The new owners continued this growth to the degree that 35 years later Seymour-Jones could write that “the orders were greater than they could possibly execute; price to the buyers was no object.”

The Wrexham tannery as in 1893

… and in 1893.

Competitors grew up so they trade-marked their product to protect it, and built a new even bigger tannery to produce it. They also developed a slightly cheaper variant, also trade-marked. Employment had grown from three people to hundreds. Hand labour had been swapped in almost every department for “effective machinery”, much of it invented by Seymour-Jones’ father.

Innovation is not a new thing and it covers strategy, product and process.

Innovation is not a new thing and it covers strategy, product and process.

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