2009 Centenary events start to take shape

It’s more or less July now and the weather for Wimbledon is better than normal. We are sitting in the garden catching the strains from Glastonbury. Not a bad way to spend such a dry sunny weekend, albeit curtailed midway to get to the airport for the next African trip. Yet it is July 2009 that we need to start planning for. We need to get the 17th to the 21st of July 2009 in our diaries since those four days will form the height of the centenary celebrations for leather in Northampton. Before you ask what the actual celebration relates to the opening in September 1909 of the National Leathersellers College in Tower Bridge Road in London. This replaced the arrangement which had been in place since the 19th century in Herold College and more importantly was itself replaced in the 1970s by the Leathersellers Centre in Northampton at a time when the Leathersellers lead the funding for locating all leather teaching around that which was already taking place in the then Nene College.

17th to 21st July 2009 events

So how will 2009 look? The degree ceremony will be on the Thursday followed by evening events that will probably include a fashion show that will have been seen in part at least at the Hong Kong APLF. On Friday the University will unite with Leather Wise to run the second edition of their very successful “beast to beauty” conference which deals with issues and new technologies from all stages of the value chain. This got a wide audience of important industry people from raw hide supply through to brands and retail.

Saturday will see the Campus open and many areas in Northampton with leather connections such as the shoe museum in town. There are now about 100 leather businesses in the Northampton area large and small, and the town and county are much more interested in building on this. Their interest is not just from a heritage point of view but more for support of a knowledge cluster focused around the University as the anchor, and with design, technology and advanced retail (as opposed to factory outlets) involved. So as well as seeing old haunts some new things should be worth have a look at. Saturday evening will be the major dinner event and there will be a lot going on around that.

London in Mind

For those who trained in London, and many others interested, Sunday will relocate to London with the day spent exploring all the old points of interest, many serving alcohol, around Tower Bridge Road and Bermondsey. Net yet finalised is a concluding event most likely at Leathersellers Hall, recognising that the Leathersellers Company have been the key benefactor who made all their money out for 600 years of the leather industry and have spent much of the last 100 generously putting much of that back.

Everyone involved is really keen that all alumni and friends should be able to take part in these events, and to make it worth coming from a long way off to take part. So two things are needed. First is that you put the dates in your diaries and that if you are travelling from afar build your family holiday or business trips around them. Second is that if you have suggestions for elements you would like added, things you want to do or so, I am sure that this is a good time to let Debbie Greaves (debbie.greaves@northampton.ac.uk) know.

Remember that the definition of alumni and Corium club membership has been extended to include all London, Northampton, and Leeds graduates and friends and associates are going to be welcome also. If you know of alumni who are missing from the list then Mitch Smith is the contact Mitch.Smith@northampton.Ac.Uk

Mike Redwood

29th June 2008

Wise word at Leathersellers prize giving

student-prizegiving-leathersellersLast Friday was the annual prize-giving at Leathersellers. The numbers were a little smaller than usual because a last minute date change left some students stranded working in Holland. The Vice Chancellor, too, was missing on holiday.

The B.Sc. students were Naveed Aamir, Furhan Masood, and Waseem Salem and the Leathersellers certificate students were Angkana Laoveerakul, Chalida Chaiyoslap, Nabeel Javed and James Muirhead. Mark Colyer from the magazine Leather International was present to give the Leather International Award to Thomas Kilee from Kenya. Congratulations to them all.

The guest speaker was different this year. Dr Tilman Taeger will be well known to many who read this column. He is head of basic innovation and technology management for leather in BASF‘s performance chemicals unit although this will change as he coming up to retirement. His talk covered three major areas

the need to treat each hide or skin as an individual and avoid making plastic, which was the fault with leather 25-30 years ago when we enjoyed making corrected grain leathers and box calf which was so heavily coated the consumer thought they might as well buy plastic

the importance of replacing inorganic chemicals in processing with biochemical materials

the importance of making a piece of leather that is good enough to last a long time and people will want to keep. At the same time to consider leather and leather goods from a cradle to cradle point of view. Look at the raw material, look at the leather in the drums, make real leather and think right down to how the consumer will use the leather in the final product

Steron finish

dr-taegerDr Taeger also talked about the new innovative Steron finish which BASF launched last year and for which they are building a pilot plant. This was designed to help with automobile leather where a permeable highly breathable leather is often required, This would normally require a perforated leather – which is often to be found in cars these days – or almost no finish which will not work in this sector. Steron is a semi-laminate system, which puts pigmented polyurethanes on a release paper and via a system of post preparation evaporation is wafer thin and highly permeable, yet meets automobile requirements.

I have provided a podcast of Dr Taeger’s talk (mp3 12.5MB). I was sitting at the back of the room so it is not the best, as he spoke quietly without a microphone. It is short though and if you put the volume high and persevere for the first few seconds I think you will hear it fine on your computer or iPod. Well worth listening to.

Mike Redwood

10th June 2008

United States Leather Company: a tale of power and forests

Right now I am working on the history of the United States Leather Company. It is an amazing story. It was formed in 1893 when some 70 companies owning over 100 tanneries got together to form a new corporation in the hope of leveraging their buying power to get a better deal on hide prices from the meat packers. All the tanneries were involved in heavy leather mostly hemlock and some oak tanners although the best oak tanners refused to join. They also got about 50% of the “union” tanners who worked with a mixed oak and hemlock system.

Just after setting up the United States Leather Company, capitalised at $128m was the largest company in the US and one of the founding companies of the Dow Jones. History was not to be too kind to them as they were unable to do any deals on raw hides and when you think about it there are not many economies of scale in heavy leather tanning. Hemlock was processed using Latin American hides and sold in the US and Europe where they had to compete with quite strong industries in France, Germany and the UK. The oak tanners did not seem to be able to gain any advantage over the small independent oak tanners who used local hides and local hemlock.

When you wonder why the tanning industry meandered so far and wide in the US – north and south of Boston and then out to West Massachusetts, up the Hudson Valley in New York to the Catskills and then a little later into the Adirondacks before going on to Maine and off into the west – think of trees. A New York Times article of 1856 says that a tannery “of the largest class” used nearly a square mile of hemlock trees per annum, measured as not less than 6000 cords. Tanneries were always set beside streams to obtain motive power but in the 1850s steam engines had been widely introduced, especially after it was realised that spent bark in its wet state was an excellent fuel.

The opening of the canals and railways also made all this much easier and New York had been busy since the start of the 19th century sending the hides to the bark rather than bringing the bark to the tanneries in the famous New York Swamp area. As a result many of the New York tanners became traders and property owners such as the Astors, the Lees, the Schultzs, and the Hoyts and many others. Those that invested in tanning formed the group that later in the century put their businesses into the United States Leather Company and it does appear that some of the families did so as the elders felt that this was the best way to extract finance from the business rather than pass them on as independent companies. Not all though, as some of the families carried on in senior management and Hoyts for example provided a famous company President after the First World War

The company had quite a struggle though, and more time was spent raising the property value of their timber forests than making money from tanning and the first fifteen years were pretty unsuccessful. They often seemed to get caught with too much inventory in the factory or on the water from South America when the price of finished leather fell. In the early 1900s they gave up trying to fight the abattoirs and handed over management to the Armour Company for about five years, paying them some $6m in stock for doing it. Briefly the company changed its name to Central Leather Company to mange a state law issue and to change the terms so they could own a lumber business and set up lumber railways. From 1910 for about a decade they did quite well but it appears that in the 1920s on the loss of harness leather as motor vehicles came in, and industrial belting as rubber belting came in drove them into steady decline. Then as chrome took over more and more and sole leather slipped away so did the United States Leather Company to closure in January 1952.

I am short of information on the company from 1920 on, and would really like to know more of this period. If you have any idea where I can get hold of it, or anything about the business at all please let me know.

Mike Redwood

2nd June 2008