We are surrounded by them. From the tip of Cornwall to the far flung outlying isles of Scotland.
They are often hidden in plain sight: stroll through any village, town or city and you’ll probably have walked past one. It may be stretching Napoleon’s adage about the British being a “nation of shopkeepers”, but I reckon that old Boney could easily have said “the British are a nation of craftsmen”.
And I think their creativity and influence are overlooked. So, let’s redress the balance, should we?
Many of these businesses are small, one or two man operations, practising skills retained and passed down through generations. Indeed, the two we’ll be looking at today work in the most ancient of trades.
Indeed, the first - The Wilton Sheepskin Company - must surely be dealing in the oldest line of clothing known to man and woman. If you discount the fig leaves deftly stitched together by that innovative fashion house Adam ‘n’ Eve Underwear, animal skins were the first garments ever produced.
The method for getting clothes from skins goes back to ancient times. Indeed, if you’ve visited the famous Chouara Tannery in Fez, you’ll know how primitive that process is.
When I was there, I was given a bunch of jasmine upon arrival. “How sweet” I thought (both literally and figuratively). However, I soon realised that the fragrance of the flowers was to mask the fumes from the factory. For the combined use of gallons of cow urine and tons of pigeon droppings was stomach churning.
I was pleased to discover that the Wilton Sheepskin Company, based in Glastonbury, has updated its processes. Indeed, for cow’s urine you can now substitute the beautiful soft waters that run through The Mendips.
The business is owned and operated by the industrious Geoff Wilton. Geoff began his career working for the Morland tannery which had been operating in Glastonbury since the 1870s. That factory was just one of many to close during the downturn that devastated the South West’s sheepskin industry in the 1980s.
But when Morlands closed, Geoff hitched his socks up, took a deep intake of breath and set up his own.
Working with sheepskin is in John’s blood. He says, “I’ve survived the ups and downs of the last 30 years” and he is proud to have kept the sheepskin industry alive in its Somerset home.
Today the Wilton Sheepskin Company produces beautiful creations for men and women in soft subtle skins, in colours and designs that ebb and flow with current fashions and trends.
Speaking of fashions and trends, it is remarkable to think that the ancient craft skills of skinning, tanning, grading and stitching have given us the giants of today’s sophisticated couture. Such houses as Gucci and Prada in Italy, Hermes in France and Loewe in Spain were all started by humble leatherworkers over 100 years ago.
Originally, bags were primarily “their bag”, and it is the same with a 140 year old leather working specialist based a little closer to all our homes.
You can find Tusting Leather Goods nestling on the Buckinghamshire borders between Northampton and Bedford. In his recent blog “Hides and Seek”, Lee Osborne (AKA ‘Satorialee’), reported that “The factory is devoid of mod cons, not flash but highly functional. The company may have adapted to the demands of the 21st century, but it’s heartening to see the traditional tools of the trade reign supreme as much today as they did when the factory first threw open its doors in 1875.”
Today that factory is run by William, a 5th generation Tusting, and a man as committed to quality craftsmanship as his forefathers. In his blog Lee observes “attention to detail strikes you at every turn in the workshop. The company’s master craftsmen and women are sticklers for precision and will think nothing of unstitching a seam if they feel it does not meet their exacting standards”
The Tustings are proud of the “Handmade in England” tagline on all their goods. Likewise, those goods’ longevity.
Indeed, testimonials from numerous customers reveal that their bags are going strong decades after purchase. They have become classic pieces mellowed by time and wearing the rich patina of life, ready to be handed down to a fortunate future generation.
I only have limited space here to eulogise such craftsmanship. So, I’ll leave you with this thought: next time you’re strolling through a village or country town and you hear the whirr of a sewing machine, or the tap of a hammer, or even perhaps when you catch the unfamiliar whiff of paint, it might just be that you have happened upon a small hive of British creative industry. And a fashion giant in the making.
2018, Your Letterbox