SLTC 116th Annual Conference
The long age of the SLTC Annual Conference is a measure of the introduction of chromium technology to the leather industry, as that was the moment when tannery owners started to hire chemists to manage their production. Testing pH and astringency by tasting it was no longer adequate as short process times, strong acids and precise timings took over from the traditions of thousands of years of “slow processing”.
Given an attendance back up around 80, with a dinner assembly of over 120 the move to Northampton has brought the Annual Conference back to a much better level, along with the bank account. At the AGM it was clear that the Council is back in a growth mode. One noticeable comparison with the Freiberg Leather Days which were the two days before was the continued absence of the brands and car trade. In Germany it is clear that the car industry, seat makers and steering wheel producers see themselves as part of the trade. If the SLTC could start to attract the significant UK car industry, the Northampton footwear and leathergoods cluster, and some of the Brands from Mulberry to Next the SLTC would be transformed for the 21st century.
Atkin Memorial Lecture
Hugh Gilmour (see photo below by CPW ex FB) the Managing Director of the Langs of Paisley and told us that “life in the leather industry need not be the pits”. Langs have an interesting history vegetable tanning pig skins for saddlery amongst other things until it changed to chrome tanning under Fred Tanning in 1950. This was about the same time my father changed Muirheads (which was not part of the SLG then) from vegetable tanned upholstery for Detroit to chrome tanned furniture leather for Scandinavia. These were both immense changes, yet both tanneries managed it without too many issues as far as I am aware.
In 1970, said Hugh, the then BLMRA had 200 members and in 1968 UK tanners employed 25,000 people. Today the industry has just 1250 employees in 22 plants. The big difference of the last few years has been the return of optimism. All the UK makers are growing, he said, all innovate and many are hiring designers. The message from the lecture was clear: tanning is now a good career.
Listening to Professor Yuko Nishimura, an anthropologist from Tokyo, who spoke next tanners have generally done well into the UK. While in Japan tanners form a low caste that are not spoken about, or indeed involved in at all, in polite society the UK leather guilds were rich and were hard for the Crown and Government to control. She said she thought the formation of the guilds in the 13th and 14th centuries reflected the development of self governance and was a foundation of democracy. Some 15% of the urban workforce worked in the wider leather industry, 22-25% in Northampton; this was no small sector of UK society.
Professor Nishimura then took us into the tanning technology which was born in Himeji, the main tanning centre in Japan, and demonstrated two leathers for which she and a retired tanner, Yoshinori Kashiwa, had brought samples. One, used to make boxes and masks, and historical protected by heavy coatings of black lacquer was more of a parchment. The other more interestingly was a snow white alum tan leather where the alum was derived from the soaking and washing period while the hides are held in the flow of the river Ichikawa that runs through Himeji. The river is high in concentration of alum from deposits further upstream. It appears this was discovered back around 500-800AD when leather making came from China via Korea. Three rivers were tried but only the Ichikawa was successful.
So two fascinating lectures set off an excellent day where in the afternoon the industry was updated on the current legal niceties of biocides, the latest on oxidative unhairing and enzymes, REACH and some managerial areas. The afternoon star act was without question Peter Laight who passionately tried to persuade the audience towards his updated film based digital coating approach and the advent of synthetic meshes to deal with the “dispersion of flatulence in aircraft seating”. Just a perfect pre-dinner topic. Did you know that “odour is worse in 1st class seating today because of the greater use of pigmented leather”?
More fundamentally it cm across that Peter feels that the use of these membranes would allow us to use more layers of the hides, and still create that vital touch and feel that make leather successful with consumers (which comes from the very top few microns).
75% of the leather we produce today is commodity crap
His starting point was quick to bring us into focus: “75% of the leather we produce today is commodity crap”- not helpful when he also thinks that “65% of under 30s do not know where leather comes from” so that our leather product offering has increasingly become out of touch with modern consciousness.