The Leather Industry
Leather at Lunchtime talks taking place at the National Leather Collection in Northampton
Although no longer the powerful controlling force it once was, the Leathersellers’ Company remains actively involved with the British leather industry, providing funding for technical education, research, and the conservation and display of historic leather items, and supplying representatives to sit on the boards of various industry bodies.
The role of the UK Leather Federation (formerly the British Leather Confederation) is to represent and promote the interests of the UK leather-producing industry and all those who support, supply or use the output of the UK leather industry in their activities.
An overview of the British Leather Industry
The British leather industry encompasses all stages of production from production of raw materials to point of sale of finished products to the consumer. The direct supply chain extends across tanners and manufacturers of leather goods, including handbags, luggage, accessories, footwear, garments, upholstery etc., and wider to traders, major brands and retailers.
The value of this supply chain in export terms was nearly £1.5 billion in 2015, up 21.9% from 2011. This figure does not include domestic sales of leather and leather products or exports of products incorporating leather as a non-defining component, e.g. leather used in automotive and upholstery and as such, the value of the British leather industry to the UK economy is greater still.
The industry also employs approximately 8,400 workers, with 1,300 in leather manufacture, 2,600 in leather goods manufacture, 4,300 in the footwear manufacture and 200 in apparel manufacture, across a range of enterprises from micro- to large-sized.
The success of the British industry is predicated on the superior quality and innovation of the leathers it produces. This is reflected in its customers, which are globally recognised high end brands associated with quality products. They include household names such as Nike, Berghaus, Oakley and Clarkes, high end luxury goods manufacturers such as Dunhill, Gucci, Mulberry and Burberry, and quality shoe manufacturers, including the renowned men’s shoe makers based in Northampton, such John Lobb, Edward Green and Church’s.
The UK tanning industry also produces high performance and specification upholstery leathers used in luxury automotive brands, such as Aston Martin, Rolls Royce, Jaguar Landrover and AMG Mercedes, by airlines such as BA and Lufthansa and even on the Royal Yacht Britannia.
Many of the brands using British Leather are also based in the UK. Globally-recognised, prestige brands such as Mulberry, Burberry, Aston Martin and John Lobb, are manufacturing British products incorporating British leather and building on a long-standing heritage of quality and performance.
The UK also remains a centre of excellence for education and research in leather; the Institute for Creative Leather Technology at the University of Northampton is recognised as the world-leader in provision of higher education in leather science and technology. There is also a strong heritage sector with the internationally-renowned Museum of Leathercraft and Leather Conservation Centre, also located in Northampton.
The manufacture of leather in Roman and medieval London was concentrated on the northern fringes of the City, where the river Walbrook provided a plentiful water supply for the tanning process and the noxious fumes attendant upon it could not offend the noses of local residents. The finished hides were sold in markets throughout the City, notably in Leadenhall market
In the nineteenth century Leadenhall market was superseded by the Leather, Hide and Wool Exchange in Bermondsey. Lying just across the Thames from the City and beyond the restrictive jurisdiction of the City authorities, Bermondsey was geographically and geologically suited to the manufacture of leather. There is evidence of leatherworking here from earliest times, and by the end of the eighteenth century it was estimated that one third of all leather produced in the country was manufactured in Bermondsey, gaining the area its nickname – “the land of leather”. It was here that the Leathersellers’ Company chose to locate its Technical College, but after the boom years of the nineteenth century, decline came swiftly. Bermondsey suffered heavy bombing during World War Two with the loss of many tanneries.
One of Bermondsey’s most well-known tanneries, Bevington & Sons Ltd, moved to Leicester in 1980, and the last working tannery in London, S.O.Rowe & Son PLC of Tanner Street, Bermondsey, closed in 1997. The Company’s Technical College moved from Bermondsey to Northampton in 1976 and is now the Institute of Creative Leather Technologies at the University of Northampton
Click here to view the Leather Manufacturing Process
The Charitable Fund provides grants to universities and colleges to support the development of leather working skills and to fund annual awards for students demonstrating excellence and innovation in the use of leather. We currently fund leather based courses at five UK universities
Universities and colleges wishing to apply for funding should do so through the Charity Grant page.
The Charitable Fund also welcomes grant applications directly from university students working with leather. Visit our Student Grant page for more information.
Cockpit Arts is an award winning social enterprise and the UK’s only business incubator for craftspeople, housing up to 170 small businesses at two centres in central and south London. They support craft practitioners at the start of their careers, as well as those who are more established, to grow and build successful and thriving businesses both in the UK and internationally.
The Charitable Fund have established a leather manufacturing hub at Cockpit Arts Deptford that houses industry standard leather working machinery to enable leather goods to be designed and made to the highest quality in London. We fund subsidised studio space and business mentoring for leather designer makers. For further information on the Leathersellers’ / Cockpit Awards please visit Cockpit Arts website.