The Northampton Leather Hub

Delegates awaiting the start of the SLTC conference.
Delegates awaiting the start of the SLTC conference. From left: Amanda Michel, Stephen Trantum, Ian Michel

For the second year in a row the SLTC held their annual conference in Northampton. The one this past weekend was the 115th. I wonder if anyone knows how many have been held in Northampton? Certainly these last two appear to herald a turnaround in the fortunes of the Society. Numbers are up and most noticeably it is now dominated by active industry executives with a fair group of students. The decline into a retirees club seems to have been slowed if not stopped.

This puts the SLTC under pressure to make sure they adjust their programmes to meet the expectations of this new group. They are international and from a very professional global leather industry where the old family tannery system has steadily evolved into quite new groupings. There is much more vertical integration and much better understanding of what is happening throughout the supply chain. How will the conference have to develop go be more suited to this audience? And it was interesting to see the difference in attendance between the day and the evening. Two quite different audiences.

And while the attendance was good it was also significant that some were missing; some of these were clearly part of the target audience and important in the world of leather. So this also needs some thought.

However this is viewed the importance of leather in Northampton is increasing each year. Northampton is back as a leather hub. It is more knowledge management than leather manufacture (although thankfully there still is a little of that with companies such as Blenkinsop) but it is growing and it is important on the world stage. Considering the value chain changes going on it is good that Northampton remains a major producer of welted footwear and has leathergoods businesses like Tusting. It is not clear that these companies quite get the value of the links back to leather; there is still a bit of a silo culture that runs counter to global trends.

We heard at the Conference about the importance of the connection between the tanner and the designer, of knowing who you are in all this, and we also heard of the reasons to bring more manufacturing back to the UK. Not just that hides and skins should not leave the UK with hair, dirt and the like attached but that moves towards Cradle to Cradle require it. Also when being reminded of all the issues from farmer to tanner with hides one wonders if all the knowledge gained in the UK is being fully exploited.

Getting round the, rather old-fashioned, notion of not naming commercial products and making rather dry fundamental research relevant to students and younger members is complex but using Northampton offers new opportunity. The tannery can be used for demonstrational, the University has NVision – the UK’s leading immersive 3D visualisation set up. Is it inconceivable that we might hold a lecture there with someone like Tony Covington walking us through the fibrils? And with lecture capture there is no reason why our South African members should not join us live.

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