A Maker's Story: about leather

As leather is one of our two predominant materials of choice (the other being waxed canvas), you may reasonably assume that we have no qualms at all about using the hides of cows in our work. But this couldn't be further from the truth. Being both animal lovers & vegetarians, we've had our fair share of mental dilemmas about using leather. After all, a cow has to be slaughtered in order that we get to use it's beautiful skin - there's no two ways about it - and if (for a whole number of reasons) we're not happy eating the meat of animals, why do we think it's OK to use a different part of their body? But leather is such a wonderful material..... the dilemma continues!

So there's a fine balance - here's how it goes for us.

One of our main motivations for becoming vegetarians was the animal welfare issue. Before we gave up meat, we tried our hardest to only eat free range, high welfare meat. This satisfied our concerns for a while, but we soon questioned whether we really needed meat at all as part of our diet.

With leather, though, it's a little different. Leather, on the whole, is a by-product of the meat and dairy industries. While that in itself isn't justification for us using leather, we certainly wouldn't want the hides to go to waste. But there's more.

Good leather is not a disposable, use (eat) once kind of material. We are advocates for buying for the long term, buying less, buying more thoughtfully, and buying things that will last. The leather we choose to use, if treated with a little love and care, will last a lifetime. Leather has been used for thousands of years (we are big fans of tradition), so it's well proven. There's not many other materials, man made or natural, that will do such a good job.

So if we cover the welfare issue - if the leather we use only comes from local British cows (from in and around Devon to be precise), that we know have been treated well in their lives, that haven't travelled for miles in a cramped lorry,  and we are sure that their hides are a by-product that would otherwise go to waste - is that enough?

Well to add to the mix - we specifically use leather that is tanned using oak bark - one of the most traditional forms of tanning (the English word 'tanning' is derived from the high German word 'tanner' - which literally means oak), and also one of the most sustainable and gentle. It takes 14 months to turn a cow hide into the finished leather, using locally sourced oak bark soaked in water. It is this slow process that makes for such a strong and durable piece of finished leather.

It is roundabout this point that we start debating alternatives - there are of course alternatives to leather. Whilst this is not the place to discuss the plethora of alternatives to leather, in the main the alternatives do not stack up well. A large number are oil based, use huge amounts of energy in their production, and whilst being animal free, for us this is not the way forward. Other alternatives can be commended for their eco credentials and use cork, flax, hemp and other sustainable bases in their manufacture - but they have their limitations too. They can be stiff and inflexible and most are not nearly as strong as real leather. However, these eco-leathers are in their infancy, so given time and continued improvement and innovation they may be a more viable option.

So nothing quite stacks up - yet.

Natural, good quality, sustainably produced leather is such a beautiful material. It's durable, it's strong and it's technically amazing! It has been used by man ever since we lost the hair from our bodies and started using animal skins for warmth and protection.

We try to produce goods that respect the leather. Goods that are designed to be timeless (for want of a better word) and that are well made and built to last. We definitely feel a pressure (maybe some kind of debt to the cows) to not waste it and we try and use as many little scraps as possible - but we do from time to time still have little wobbles about using it! It's definitely a good thing to continue to question our usage of leather, and maybe at some point in the future we'll change our views. But for now, we're proud of the leather we use, grateful to the lives of the cows that have produced it, and will continue to use it with a full knowledge of its production and it's origins.

That's our leather story.

To find out a bit more about where we get our leather from, the oak bark tanning process and to see some stunningly atmospheric photos of the tannery visit www.jfjbaker.co.uk