Leather is the most natural and durable material – and one of Man’s earliest luxuries. But how does the tradition of fine leather work fit into the modern market?
The tradition of leatherworking appears to date back to the Stone Age, with Palaeolithic cave paintings depicting people wearing leather clothing and shoes and even building shelters out of animal hide. It was then adopted by the Greeks and the Romans, making leather one of the most significant and treasured materials to survive through the ages. But with synthetics offering modern alternatives, and automation replacing hand-working, what is place does the tradition of leather working hold today?
Leather working began as a ‘cottage industry’, usually kept within families, and of using hand skills to cut, prepare and sew, but it became largely industrialised in the 1800’s.
As the resultant demand for leather increased, tanning techniques became more sophisticated. The oldest method of tanning, the process which makes animal hides more durable and less susceptible to decomposition, is vegetable tanning, an art know to date back to Hebrew tradition.
Closely associated with animal rearing, early tanning and leather work relied on hard work and patience.
The development of machinery to cut and sew leather allowed the leather-goods trade to boom, initially with increased demand for leather shoes.
By the Middle Ages, guilds were established in London for the growing industry. These consisted of the Skinners, Cordwainters and Leathersellers. With the support of the industry and the London Livery Companies, the National Leather Collection in Northampton now cares for one of the largest collections of items and information relating to leather in the world.
Embedded in the tradition of leather working for the last 140 years is Buckinghamshire-based company JR Tusting & Co Ltd, which draws on a history of five generations in the leather trade. Director Alistair Tusting is the great-great-grandson of founder John Pettit, and tells Arts & Collections: “When our great-great-grandfather and the company’s founding father started working with leather, it was already becoming an industry rather than just a trade.
“The automation [which has replaced hand skills] happened in the latter half of the 19th century. The last hundred years have seen the process become cleaner, faster and much more efficient, but the same basic processes continue to be followed.”
The range from Tusting consists of luxurious and durable handbags and briefcases, as well as accessories which give a nod to modern requirements, such as cable tidies, key fobs, device cases and glasses cases. Despite the depth of the range, which includes handbags, backpacks, briefcases, shoulder bags, travel holdalls, messenger bags, tote bags, cabin bags, satchels and washbags, the tradition of hand-working, custom finishing and personalisation is retained, though of course with the help of precision machinery.
“Leather goods machinery is split into three groups” explains Alistair: “Cutting, which is usually with metal knives on a hydraulic cutting press; Preparation, where we have machines to edge finish, split, skive and emboss the leather to prepare for sewing; and lastly, Sewing, were we using a range of different sewing machines to take the component pieces and sew them together to create the finished bag.”
But with the availability of durable synthetics, what’s the argument for continuing to invest in quality leather goods, and how does a modern leather goods manufacturer compete? Part of the answer lies in commercial arrangements such as Tusting’s partnership with Gleneagles Hotel, or with luxury car manufacturer Aston Martin, for whom it developed the Shuttle hard-sided wheeled cabin bag, designed to fit in the DB11. Tusting also has a strong relationship with export markets, particularly China and Japan, where the background to a product is considered as important as its quality.
It does no harm that Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, has often been photographed with her Tusting Explorer holdall.
“The key is to keep up to date with what people are using their bag for, for example, as laptops have reduced in size to tablet size, or thereabouts, so briefcases have become smaller,” explained Alistair. “We keep updating the designs to accommodate modern needs. We know that people travel more, so our bags need to reflect the versatility and convenience required for life on the move.
“As an example, we include features such as a sleeve on the back of some of our bags so they can sit atop a trolley suitcase without sliding off. We also include padded laptop pockets and passport pouches.”
It’s this willingness to adapt to the demands of modern customers, as well as durability, heritage and fine craftsmanship that keep the luxury leather tradition on trend.
“We have customers who collect Tusting bags, sets of luggage. A bag gets better the more well-loved and used it looks, and it is these bags that garner the most attention” says Alistair.
And leather has qualities which synthetic materials can’t match—as Alistair explains, “Leather can come in any colour, you can have simple colours but also two-tone effects, metallic, patent and suedes. The quality of leather is very subjective—what is good for shoes may not be good for bags. Leather has so many varied uses and almost as many qualities. It can be used for clothing, shoes, bags, harnesses, furniture, bookbinding and more, so what makes a perfect clothing leather would be the opposite of leather for the sole of a shoe (soft and supple versus hard and durable).”
But there’s a sustainability angle too—genuine leather is a highly sustainable material, and premium quality hides sourced from cattle raised for beef would otherwise end up as landfill. Tusting favours tanning methods using classic vegetable dyes, which give good results and are biologically sustainable, and when leather treated with more modern tanning methods is chosen, the company adheres to the highest quality and environmental standards.
Leather is of course repairable, unlike some synthetics, and Tusting will refurbish or repair its products to ensure they give good service for many years to come.
Like leather itself, the secret of the success of the fine leather goods industry seems to be an ability to adapt itself to every situation – and a durability which distinguishes it in an era of the mass-produced and disposable.
See more about Tusting here
This feature was originally published in the latest edition of Arts & Collections, which you can read here