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Home Made: British leather manufacturers fight for growth

UK tanners and leather goods manufacturers are enjoying a renaissance, but challenges remain

Leather is enjoying its time in the limelight. Not only was its popularity on the autumn 15 catwalks demonstrated by the likes of Burberry and JW Anderson, but high street retailers are also capitalising on the trend for the material, including Marks & Spencer with that suede skirt.

But despite the UK’s strong history for leather processing and the manufacture of leather goods, many of these pieces will not have been made here. The industry severely contracted in the 1980s as production was moved to the Far East. It is only now starting to recover as both surviving and new businesses tap into growing demand for domestically produced fashion. However, this resurgence is fuelled predominantly by international demand, particularly from China, Japan and the US.

Pittards tannery

Pittards tannery

Founded in 1826, Yeovil-based tannery Pittards produces leather for clients as varied as UK glovemaker Dents, sports footwear brand New Balance and Marks & Spencer, but 90% of its leather is exported, mainly to the Far East for manufacture for US brands. It bought men’s leather brand Daines & Hathaway of Walsall in 2009 and launched its own bags and accessories online last year. Pittards started to wholesale this range in January and now has 80 stockists globally. It is looking for its first standalone UK store.

Ian Walker, chairman of Joseph Clayton & Sons of Chesterfield, which celebrates its 175th anniversary in September and supplies high-end leather to customers such as Gucci Group, says export comprises around 60% of its business, focused on China and Japan, where brands increasingly want to produce locally using high-quality UK leathers.

As he speaks to Drapers, Walker is preparing to fly to the Far East to meet potential clients. “The business is there and people are looking for high-quality British product and are prepared to pay the price for that. The markets for growth are the Far East and India.”

Those making finished leather products in the UK are experiencing similar growth. British bag brand Tusting, established in 1875 and which operated as a tannery until 1980 but now sources its leather from overseas, makes products for the likes of M&S, shoemaker Church’s and carmaker Aston Martin alongside its own collection. Last month the company, based in Olney, Buckinghamshire, opened its first China store in Tianjin and is also seeking a UK flagship store. With 14 UK and 75 international stockists, its bags wholesale at up to £300 for a holdall.

The Cambridge Satchel Company already sells on Chinese etailer Tmall and plans to open Chinese stores in the future, while its first men’s-only store opened in London’s Covent Garden this month, joining its three other stores. Retail prices range from £55 for a ‘tiny satchel’ to £390 for a saddle leather tote.

Florida Group factory

The Florida Group factory

Norwich footwear brand house The Florida Group has seen production of its UK-made Van Dal shoes – which wholesale at an average of £37.50 and account for around 15% to 20% of the brand’s range – rise by 5% in the last six years.

Church’s, with a collection retailing at £105 for leather slippers up to £525 for suede Oxfords, is working up plans to more than double the size of its Northampton factory next year. It will add 130,000 sq ft and create 150 jobs as capacity increases from 250,000 to 300,000 pairs a year. 

Meanwhile, Clarks is preparing a UK-made range to mark its 190th anniversary this year. The limited-edition brogues – spanning 200 pairs for each of the two Watlington and Saddle styles – will be made in a Northampton factory to retail at £295.

This growth spurt follows decades of decline. There are thought to have been around 4,000 UK tanneries in the early 1900s, but the industry was decimated in the 1980s when emerging economies like China and India provided lower-cost supply chains for brands, and UK producers were hit by the rising costs of more stringent effluent regulations. The number of UK tanneries plummeted from about 125 in 1983 to just 23 today.

Kerry Senior, director of leather tanning industry association the UK Leather Federation, explains that hides are a by-product of the meat industry and the UK is producing around 2.5 million a year. But, of these, around 1.5 million are exported in their raw form to countries like China and Italy to be processed, where it can be done more cheaply, leaving just 1 million for the domestic industry. Some 600,000 to 700,000 of these go into upholstery for the aviation and automotive industries, leaving the rest for footwear, clothing, accessories and equestrian equipment such as saddles.

Around 14 million sheepskins are produced annually in the UK, but only around 100,000 are processed here and nearly all of these go into woollen products such as rugs, meaning sheepskin used for UK apparel and footwear manufacturing is imported.

Senior says: “The tanneries that remain are the ones serving the top end. In the UK we have a reputation for quality, meaning the leather produced here is more expensive than that with lower-quality and technical specifications. There’s scope for expansion if someone was to invest. We are exporting a lot of raw material we could be processing. There is a global trend for countries to do more processing at home.”

This trend is encouraged by the Chinese market, where local tanneries are under pressure to clean up their effluent, resulting in many closures.

Mike Redwood, a consultant working to promote the leather industry, explains: “The UK can’t expect to win back the high-volume production - that will stay in places like Cambodia, Vietnam and India. But for everything that involves craftsmanship, short lead times and flexibility for customers, there’s a very good chance of that coming back to Europe and the UK.”

Redwood agrees with Senior that the industry has the potential to process more raw hides here. “The question is whether there is a company around with the courage to say: ‘I’m going to grab this raw material and put it into a system so all those growing [finished leather product] companies can use it and complete the chain.’”

Most in the tanning industry agree that setting up a new tannery in the UK would be an extremely costly and difficult process now due to heightened effluent and planning regulations.

Cambridge Satchel Company factory

Cambridge Satchel Company factory

Julie Deane, founder of The Cambridge Satchel Company, manufactures her bags in Leicester. She says there is “a huge awareness issue” about what can be created from leather in the UK and the depth of skills available here: “It would be a huge help if the new government said we will bring all the chambers of commerce up to date and get them working together to get a manufacturing database, so when people want things made they can find out who does what and have confidence in the people they are seeking out.”

Most of the brand’s leather comes from Europe, particularly Italy, but it is working with the Bridge of Weir tannery in Renfrewshire, which has one of Europe’s largest production facilities, to see if it can develop a small UK-made range for later this year.

Walker echoes Deane’s call for greater awareness of what the UK leather industry can provide. Joseph Clayton & Sons has just concluded deals with three established companies that have been manufacturing overseas but now want to produce leather for clothing to be made in the UK. “Some of the things they wanted to do to the leather they didn’t realise they could do in the UK [including milling, perforation and splitting],” he says. “It’s about making sure people know what’s available out there and can be done locally.”

Highlighting to shoppers that products contain UK leather, as well as being manufactured in the UK, is also a difficulty, as EU regulations stipulate only the country a product is made in must be named, rather than material origination.

“The buying public don’t recognise what leather is and the processes that went into it. It’s not well understood,” says Senior. “It doesn’t matter to them whether it comes from China. The origination of components should be labelled, not just where product was made. We are pushing for this in the EU.”

To boost awareness of UK leather manufacturing, The Florida Group, which also makes shoes for John Lewis, M&S and Cocorose London, hosts tours of its Norwich factory. Marketing director Jason Larke says the public “are surprised at how much handwork goes into making a pair of shoes” while “very few people are aware we are still making them [in the UK]”. “For mass manufacture I don’t think we are in a position to see growth again in that sense, but cropping up are a lot of cottage-industry small traders, designers and one-off handmade organisations.”

Tusting factory

Tusting factory

For William Tusting, director of Tusting, more support is needed, including Tradeshow Access Programme (TAP) grants - available for brands to participate in trade shows - which were reduced this year. “The UK industry will only grow with exporting. There are not enough UK-only customers for our quality of bags. Government support for exports isn’t as good as it should be. It’s so difficult to get support, you have to go through so many layers.”

Sourcing key technical skills to work with leather remains an issue. “Without EU immigrants we would struggle for skills,” he says, adding that the UK has developed a disconnect between the leather manufacturing industry and products available in shops, meaning the skills involved are no longer appreciated.

Deane believes awareness must start in schools. “It’s not easy at all to find those skills now [particularly machinists with leather experience]. The importance of apprenticeship schemes can’t be over-emphasised. People with the talent need to see there is a real respect for jobs in manufacturing. It is all of our jobs to keep it first and foremost in people’s minds.”

As the leather industry takes steps to better publicise growing career opportunities and its global reputation for high-quality tanning and finished product manufacturing, it has huge potential to capitalise on the Made in Britain trend. In turn, this could see it reap the rewards of increased reshoring and a post-recession upsurge in brand startups.

Pittards: the science of skin

Walking around the Pittards tannery and finished products factory, the level of science, skill and design in the leather industry is obvious.

Pittards tannery

Pittards tannery

In the Yeovil tannery, bovine hides and sheepskins are processed using chrome tanning in vast drums capable of dealing with 10,000 sq ft of skin at once. Each week, 2,500 cow hides and up to 70,000 sheepskins are processed on the Somerset site. Adjoining the tannery is a science lab where new tanning techniques are perfected, enabling Pittards to lead on performance and high-abrasion leathers. For example, it is developing tough camouflage leathers for the UK and US military.

Leathers processed here are supplied to brands and retailers ranging from M&S’s Best of British collection to Dents gloves and New Balance shoes. It also has a strong export business selling to the likes of US brand Footjoy for sports gloves.

In the adjacent finished product factory, leather bags and clothing are created for the company’s own-brand England Collection of bags and leather accessories, its Daines & Hathaway men’s leather products brand and third-party brands such as Jaguar’s vintage collection leather jackets.

Pittards chief executive Reg Hankey says: “We have more than we can cope with this week, but that was not the case last year, so we are going in the right direction. Word is getting out there. We want to produce more leather here and more finished product here. We are looking for double-digit growth per year in sales on both sides.”

Pittards tannery

Pittards tannery

Social media is boosting business, facilitating dialogue with manufacturers looking for UK leather. “Smaller manufacturers are driving growth and discovering us. In the last 18 months, we have seen more companies start up and want leather in the UK.”

To cater for growing demand the AIM-listed company raised £5.8m from shareholders on June 5, which will be used to buy the freehold of its 140,000 sq ft tannery to “put an absolute footprint in the UK” and invest in more machinery and staff.

With an established apprenticeship programme and nine recruits in place, Pittards is working on a graduate recruitment scheme that could take on five to 10 people later this year.

The “holy grail” is now its own-brand England Collection, which was first wholesaled in January and has 80 global stockists, including menswear indie Present in east London and department store Isetan in Japan. Wholesale prices range from £34 for a wallet to £120 for a tote bag.

Alongside the Yeovil site, Pittards also operates a tannery and factory in Ethiopia, processing hair sheepskins for gloving.

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