Tanneries were once widespread, producing leather goods for local use and trade. In these days of mass production demand for traditional oak tanned leather has reduced meaning therre are few tanneries left.
J & FJ Baker in Colyton, East Devon is one such surviving tannery. Tanning has gone on at this site back to the middle ages, and there is a wonderfully organic collection of buildings of various periods and styles there. I was lucky enough to have a look round in the company of Paul Glendell who has an exhibition of his tannery photographs at RAMM where I work. My colleague Tom organised our outing and Ian came along too.
It’s bigger than I expected and a mix of old and new. Specific areas of the site are dedicated to different parts of the process. The process takes the raw hairy hides through dyeing to finishing and ready for making into shoes, saddlery and other goods.
The smell is noticeable but not overpowering by any means. The Exe estuary at low tide on a summer’s day is more pungent according to my nose!
Time is the thing
Like many traditional processes oak tanning is a slow one. From creating the tanning liquor from dried oak bark to soaking the hides in different vats of liquor it all takes time which adds quality and cost of course.
Is it a timeless process though? Yes and no in my view. It is strongly traditional in its techniques but modern machinery is used to make production easier. Not tradition for tradition’s sake then but living heritage in the core of the process being dyeing hides with oak bark liquors in vats.
Ancient and modern
One of the pleasures of our tour was seeing machinery from different times. There were wooden and metal dyeing drums to enjoy. Sadly I did not get a photo of the wooden water wheel that is still in use as it is enclosed.
At the modern end of things were two flattening machines. Once a 19th Century model from Merseyside and another very recent one from Italy where they is still a large leather industry.
Want to see more?
Pop along to Paul’s exhibition while it is on in Exeter over Spring 2013.
My own photos are on Flickr as usual