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leather tanning

Visit to JF&J Bakers in Colyton, Devon

Last week we paid a visit to JF&J Bakers tannery in Colyton, Devon. This is the last oak bark tannery in the UK. I went to buy leather for belts as the leather that they produce is second to none.

On arrival we were shown up an almost vertical staircase to the room where the hides are stored. I was able to select the shoulders and colours that I wanted before James polished them. The hides are treated with a liquid mix of fish oils and tallow (sheep fat). This sounds disgusting but the smell from this leather is like no other and fantastically distinctive. From here the hides that I had selected are taken to a large table in another room so that they can be measured and and the price calculated. James asked if we would like a tour around the tannery which we gratefully accepted.

The site of the tannery has been used as such since the Roman times , it has been developed and expanded over the centuries and with it the technique of oak bark tanning.

First we saw the beginning of the process where the oak bark chippings were added to water to create different strengths to tan the hides. The next stop was the shed that the hides arrived in on pallets from the abattoir. These hides arrive with the hair and fat still on them, they are also salted to help with preservation. From here the hides are craned up into a large pool of water and lime to remove the hair. The hides stay like this for 3/4 days when they are then lifted out. They are then dragged to roller type machines that remove the hair and fat. Any excess hair is then removed by hand.

The hides are graded by quality and then submerged in water and lime pits. If the hide was left out in the air it would go hard and be classed as rawhide.

After this process the hides are moved up to the tan pits where they are soaked for around 14 months moving from one pit to the next on a weekly basis. Each pit contains a different strength of tanning liquor. The hides are suspended from wooden batons so that they hang straight down and are tanned equally. After they have been through all the pits they are then removed and hung for 2/3 days to dry. After this each hide is treated with a mixture of oils and greases.

It was a really fascinating tour around the tannery seeing the process from start to finish. Also I can share with you this process and give you an idea about how the leather is produced.

How much do you know about the leather that has been produced to make your handbag? I can almost guarantee it won’t be two years old before you start using it. Our country style handbags are made using this beautiful leather. As it has been produced this way each hide retains the natural characteristics of the skin so no two bags will be identical. This leather really does get better with age and gains a natural patina over time.

The hides that arrive at the tannery are from cows that are farmed in Devon, the abattoir is in Exeter and the tannery is in Colyton, West Devon. With slow fashion and buying local becoming increasingly sought after , choosing a product made from this leather is a sustainable choice.