Portugal with ICLT

Over the last ten years I have become very identified with the University here, even although my involvement has always been part time and quite marginal.  It is odd as it means I get identified as an “academic’ whereas all my career has been factory based and it is in the factory where I am most comfortable.

Two weeks ago I went to Portugal to attend the third session of the EU Social Dialogue programme looking at the tanning industry in 2025. It involves a Brussels trade Union and about seven of the EU countries and has created a useful forum and pool of ideas albeit the ideas being put raised are  now tending towards extrapolating current trends forward and emphasising current lobbies. Hopefully in the December meeting in Glasgow we will really look at the future. It is not always an easy thing to ask of tanners and chemical companies, as to look ahead in public is sometimes to give away your future.

Although I am not representing the ICLT on these trips it has become normal for me to introduced as coming from Northampton, which is usually mutually advantageous, and it was good in Portugal as at the opening dinner I found that I was sitting next  to Antonio Carvalho (1984) who along with some other members of his family was able to give me a great rundown on all the changes in Alcanena since I was last there twenty years ago (about the time he was in college).

His plant makes steering wheel leathers and makes for an exceptional visit. It is both indicative of how the industry has changed and will change, and of the levels of individual IP that a tanner must have to stay in the game profitably.

I had only heard that Alcanena, and with it the rest of the Portuguese leather industry, had gone downhill in the last twenty five years, a view underlined by my own involvement in closing the ECCO tannery there in the early 2000s. Yet there has clearly been a rebirth based on local skills and brands after the foreign shoemakers left for Asia. I went to Guimaraes and met some exciting shoemakers and back in Alcanena there is no doubt that the tanning industry is in many regards a world leader.

What is also exciting is high amongst the management creating this new future fir Portuguese leather are alumni from Northampton.

Mike Redwood
10th November 2015

A future to get excited about

For those of us who were at APLF and heard the Vice Chancellor’s major statement on the move to the new Campus the excitement of the potential for leather in Northampton has been growing.

While it is easy to get depressed by the last fifty years of relentless Northampton decline in the 20th century the 21st century has been much better and with this announcement looks to be improving further. The Northampton footwear industry has stabilised and is expanding again, even being written about in the Financial Times. Leathergoods businesses like Tusting are making a big mark on the world and our local tannery appears to be busy. In the University leather education has battled through the tough changing terrain of UK higher education to look much stronger now.

With the great help of our friends and supporters from around the world which include many tanners, chemical companies and brands, along with magnificent support from the Leathersellers Company the tannery, laboratories and teaching rooms have been transformed, the courses have been modularised and updated and the research has been further revitalised with much greater industrial links. Talking about links the silos in the University also appear to be breaking down and cooperation with fashion, waste management, business and a host of other parts of the University which routinely overlap with leather is increasing all the time. Allied to the new short courses and a very dynamic teaching team a visit to the ICLT nearly always produces positive surprises.

The vision for the Vice Chancellor is that Waterside campus will create a new International Centre for Leather Excellence. This probably is not what it will be called but it is good for the moment. It will combine the Teaching Tannery, the Leather Conservation Centre (which you will remember is next door on Park Campus) and the Museum of Leather Craft (whose world beating collection has been too nomadic) into one building. This concept will combine modern technology with heritage and design. Just a few metres away from this building will be a multi storey Curative Hub in which leather research and laboratories will link with the Arts, Fashion, Design and other scientific areas.

So for the leather industry this is pioneering work. Celebrating the importance of leather in society, technology and design and using that to unite with modern innovation, future manufacturing methods and fashion all on one site in a town that has been deeply involved in leather for 1000 years is something that just ten years ago we would not have been able to imagine.

It is going to require determination to make it work. The University does not have all the funding for it yet, and the Museum will need some bridging finance to get through the few years until the Campus is built. Right now plans and numbers are being calculated and more details should be available by the end of the summer.

But this is undoubtedly a future to get excited about.

Not just jobs, but good jobs

Rachel Garwood and Professor Nick Petford
Rachel Garwood and Professor Nick Petford

Last Wednesday the Institute for Creative Leather Technologies (ICLT) was packed with students listening to chemical companies from Holland and Germany,  to SATRA and the BLC plus a team from Aston Martin talking about careers in leather. An additional group including Lear (who have just complete their purchase of Eagle Ottawa), Church’s Shoes, Burberry, Pittards and Scottish Leather added to the stands as well for the afternoon walk through. All appeared pleased with the interest.

Slowly the image of leather is changing in the UK. ICLT is starting to see walk in students from the UK and Europe interested in leather and without family links to the trade. And as a group those of us in the industry are much more confident about talking positively about leather making as a career.

Some points need mentioning. With the industry growing again in Europe there are more job opportunities. Demands for new products, more testing, better control in the factories means that at all levels in the supply chain there are many new types of post being added for Northampton graduates who can add leather knowledge to their CVs.

And even beyond that the movement of manufacture to Asia and the associated loss of European recruitment for over a decade when added to the steady forthcoming retirement of large numbers of the boomer generation means that many more places will fall vacant over the next few years. No wonder we have a 100% record for putting graduates into jobs: interesting, good quality jobs with real career prospects.

So it is not just the Aston Martin we should be excited about. It’s the jobs available in making it and so many other great products made from leather and in the tanneries making that leather.

Mike Redwood
1st March  2015

Getting to the meat of it

Stephen Tierney moderating the discussion on environmental boundaries.
Stephen Tierney moderating the discussion on environmental boundaries.

Leather never lives in isolation.  Most often we think forward to the shoemakers and craftsmen making articles of leather or even more likely to the famous brands that market those products at price levels that make us cringe when we think of the margins back in our tanneries.

Yet as a centre that researches scientific and technological applications of leather, as well as key issues within the leather and related industries, we are keenly aware that everything the tanner can achieve is built on the quality of the hides and skins that come into the tannery. For them to be of the best aspects of cure, of slaughter quality to avoid flay marks and dung, and of husbandry are all vital. Pittards have spent two decades trying to remove the wicked ticks in Ethiopian hair sheep that have turned 70% 1-3 grades into less that 30% 1-3 grades.

Our businesses have come more integrated with the rising importance of traceability. Quite a number of companies now identify their leather with the tanner and the farm of origin and where it is not made public often the brand or retailer is still given full information.

Yet when the huge load of carbon footprint that the FAO dumped on Livestock back in 2006 came to light there was a quick rush to find how we could prove that hides were a waste material and all the blame of this could be pushed onto the meat. The approach of system expansion offered the scientific escape route to the tanner wanting nothing to do with meat and livestock. Events in the EU brought the industries together for discussion on the topic and yesterday, February 17th, the Institute of Meat visited the ICLT to see the tannery, the Conservation Centre and discuss the whole issue of the environmental footprint of leather.

The session was moderated by Stephen Tierney of World Leather and Kerry Senior gave an update of the current position in the EU. If I understood correctly the approach which argued that as a non defining product – that is not the reason that cattle or sheep are bred and reared – leather should carry no load from the before the abattoir has been blocked in the EU discussions and so leather will have to carry some load.

The discussions were wide ranging and quite a few students joined in. The difference between grass fed and grain fed cattle was discussed along with an aspect raised on the meat side questioning why so many of the calculations range around dairy rather than beef cattle.

While the 2006 report has now been effectively challenged Stephen Tierney made the point that it was still the most quoted resource and still widely arable on the Internet. Even trusted bodies like Chatham House wee putting out incorrect data.

It was noted that current livestock CO2 load put on leather totally overwhelms the issues of the tannery and yet when a plastic or synthetic is compared the only calculation is that of its manufacture with no addition for being made from a petrochemical source and its going to be used briefly once and then spend nearly 1000 years in landfill before breaking down.

A number of comments were made about the alternates to livestock and the fact that this was not a situation where an end of meat eating eliminated the carbon footprint as the crops required to feed the population will require fertiliser and ploughing of even more long term grassland with all the CO2 implications of that and intermediate land that can only be used for grazing will become inhabited by wild animals as has been seen in Scotland with deer and Tanzania with zebra which as ruminants have the same emissions issues as cattle and sheep.

Stephen Tierney brought an excellent session to a close with a quote that we live in a world where nothing is hidden so it is best to be sure we have nothing to hide.

Without question this short session juts proved the potential value of bringing the industries together openly in this way. While the older members could reminisce about the hide improvement society and how we all managed to get rid of the warble fly vital issues of the modern world were brought to the fore and one felt that this was where the innovative ideas would arise.

Mike Redwood
18th February 2015

The Importance of Education

In the rush of the modern world we all argue about the importance of education but often do not actually value it enough. It is not the qualification which matters so much as the understanding that goes with it. Time and again we hear that companies do not have time and resources to support students through degree courses when in reality they continue to produce good margins for owners and shareholders.

Certainly the ground rules are changing. A three year full time degree away from home is expensive, especially if a salary is paid as well.  Young people are also less interested in careers for life so companies have to be wary about investing in someone who may leave for a “better offer”.

Consequently while family businesses are likely to continue to sponsor students we will need to supplement these with more school leavers who are completely new to the industry. With the increasing number of technical jobs in the leather industry as a result of the requirements of the brands, environmental matters and compliance work there are many exciting opportunities. On top of this the demographics of the next 15 years means many additional good jobs will become vacant as boomers retire. So everyone we can attract into the industry who is a reasonable person will find a good job.

As a consequence it is important that the industry helps to find and encourage students to join us in Northampton. With the new campus only a few years away we need a full complement of students who will find themselves rubbing shoulders much more effectively with experts in waste management, fashion and design and management.  A thriving school will be a better basis for the long term independent research the industry needs and for the development of distance learning courses and short courses for conversion and updating industry executives.

In this regard our one week courses continue to gather strength and the new executive MSc where the theory is taught in four months is outstanding at getting those with a good science degree or solid industry experience into the perfect position to hold a senior position in the business.

Mike Redwood

24th November 2014

Transit to Lineapelle

If you are going to Lineapelle this week the visit the University of Northampton in Hall 9 Stand P5.  If you are a lost alumni it is time to check in.  If you think you might be eligible for an honorary degree this is getting close to your last chance to apply. If you want to hear about the New Campus to be built by 2018 this is the right time. If you want to influence its design or if you have opinions on the courses and how they need to evolve this us the moment to start making a difference. And if you want your name on a building you need to get moving.

Yes it is a transitional moment for the University, hopefully towards even greater things. We are also in a period of trade fair overload at a time of huge transition.  The $100 hide as a new baseline, plastics passing off as leather, yet getting better all the time and geopolitics breaking out all over the leather trade.  And trade bodies that were just getting re-united becoming dysfunctional once again.

So what are the implications?  Simple really. We live in a time and work in an industry that needs well educated staff. Leather is difficult. Trying to manage any part of the chain requires knowledge of the raw material and of the ways it is processed. Bringing outside skills into the industry is good but managing without understanding the technical fundamentals will fail.

It is quite clear that throughout our industry strategic minds are coming to the fore. The leather industry is not insulated from the world, indeed the reverse. The pressures on agriculture, the changing world politics, growth in wealth and GDP and all manner of macro issues weigh heavily on the industry. Thoroughly trained management are required.

At the same time to beat off the plastic competition it is innovative technology that is essential. Leather that does more than match the best that the raw material offers, but rather leather that better meets the needs and expectations of the consumer. The aesthetics of a truly natural material matched with the performance expected to meet the demands of the modern world.

Evidence from the All China Leather Show last week indicates that top tanners from Brazil to China are ready to take on that challenge. Make leather on its merits for the customer, not on a historic tanners view of its grade.

Mike Redwood
7th September 2014

The Museum of Leathercraft

Honorary Leather Degrees being awarded by Rachel Garwood and the Vice Chancellor
Honorary Leather Degrees being awarded by Rachel Garwood and the Vice Chancellor

All of the Honorary Leather Graduates at this week’s ceremonies studied last century and some come from the days when leather teaching in the UK had three Campuses. Leeds University, Leathersellers in London and Northampton. It was in the 70s when they all got combined into the British School of Leather Technology in what was then Nene College in Northampton housed in the Leathersellers Centre built by the generosity of the ancient London Leather Guild which has for over 600 years been known as the Leathersellers Company.

The three institutions had some great teachers. Prof Procter, Dr Danby, Sharpehouse, Stanley Briggs and many more. Probably worth developing a list. One of those who is remembered by colleagues like Michael Pearson, Bob Higham and Philip Rothwell is Dr.Claude Spiers who was a lecturer at Leathersellers during their days. I tried to look up some of the JSLTC Journal papers he wrote, but it looks like the online JSLTC index does not go back that far.

One of the amazing things Dr Spiers did was set up the Museum of Leathercraft with the famous designer John Waterer in 1946. The museum was started with the aim of “the preservation and encouragement of high standards of craftsmanship and design” in the leather industry and to collect and showcase these items. Waterer, with Spiers, collected several hundred pieces, attracting grants from trusts and benefactors. They pioneered the conservation of leather, and was the inspiration behind the formation of the Leather Conservation Centre, also based  in Northampton, on the University campus just behind the ICLT Leathersellers Centre. The Museum first opened in London but in 1978 was moved to Northampton with a 50 year deal for Northampton to store and display the collection. Sadly it was not long before cuts forced Northampton to struggle with this commitment and everything got parked into rather mediocre storage.

After many years of battling the Trustees of the Museum of Leathercraft have found funds for a full time Curator, Philip Warner, and with the new enthusiasm for the developing “Cultural Centre” in Northampton better storage and some display space is coming available.

So after decades we are starting to uncover what looks like being the world’s finest collection of historic items. In so many spheres such as luggage, leathergoods, books, gloves and drinking vessels the collection appears to be quite unbelievably exciting.

If you want to keep up with this exciting voyage of discovery the Museum of Leathercraft has a Facebook page and we certainly encourage you to friend it and give your support to this amazing work:


Mike Redwood

18th July 2014

Condolences to the Family of Akram Zaman

Akram Zaman
Akram Zaman

It is with sadness we were informed of the passing away of Leather Technology alumnus Akram Zaman on Saturday 19 April 2014.

The University of Northampton and the Institute for Creative Leather Technologies (ICLT) would like to recognise not only his support for the University of Northampton through philanthropy but also his passion and commitment to the leather industry and the county of Northamptonshire.

We pass on our sympathy to his family and friends.

Kind regards

Daryn Castle
Alumni Officer
University of Northampton

Water is not the best tool for tanning

It feels like we have been trying to replace water as the vital fluid in tanning fir decades. Dyeing with the Swiss Multimac machine was just a typical example of many ideas intended to avoid leather having to processed in an aqueous bath. The patent for this was applied for in 1986.  I last saw one lying rusting away in a field outside Oporto in Portugal.  At the end of the day water remains a key material and the effective work being done today in tanneries  is a reduction in its use, using it better and cleaning it more effectively.

Yet at the 117th edition of the SLTC conference on Saturday we heard the first moves in an approach from the University of Leicester. Professor Andrew Abbott gave the Procter Memorial Lecture on “Ion-age Leather Processing – a Step Change in Technology”.  Part of the concept is to design new materials specifically to carry chosen chemicals into leather, but not on the basis of the material just being a solvent that carries the material in and then needs cleaning up after.

If I understood it correctly using eutectic solvents which can be cheap, non flammable and biodegradable we can include active ingredients such as chromium and dyestuffs into the liquid rather than dissolving it as a solvent. Mimosa was also rested. All these are still at small stage testing for feasibility but in each case penetration was quick and the early indications are first of viability but then if both greater process speed and decreased effluent. The system has been bulked up to work commercially in immersion coating, electroplating and electro polishing so taking it further in leather processing looks to have some realistic potential.  It is good to see that an SLTC conference can still come up with creative new ideas that put it at the leading edge of thinking.

A few years ago it looked like the SLTC would quietly wind down suffering from disinterest from the much reduced UK trade and wind down using up its reducing funds having an annual party for retirees and publishing the journal. Yet, perhaps linked to the return to Northampton, now the SLTC is back amongst the living and really moving forward. There is a real dynamic in the organisation and the conference clearly has regained the support of the industry and of Corium students at Northampton. Hopefully this means that all students will be persuaded to join the Society and stay members for their entire careers, just as so many of our older colleagues have done. Being a Corium club member and an SLTC member should be two strong outcomes of time in Northampton.

Mike Redwood
July 27th 2014

Northampton is a lot more than leather

While we like to think of leather as the only worldwide business at the University of Northampton this is a long way from the truth. From podiatrists in Hong Kong to lift engineers in every country which has tall buildings Northampton trained staff are to be found. Waste management has big programmes in Africa and works all over the world and Fashion has long been working in Sri Lanka and China amongst other places.Yet by far the most important international programmes run by the University in terms of both numbers and income are those from the Northampton Business School.

So the new, more joined up, University approach which is starting to find the logical overlap that exists in all these subjects is an exciting situation as we are really the only institute in the world offering this sort of combined working and thinking, which is just what the leather industry needs and what is happening in industry right now.  We have been seeing not only consolidation but also reconfiguration in the total leather industry for some years now and the next decade looks no different. Just as valuable, and important for leather is the fact that working with the other areas of the university to Improve the offer helps to make teaching leather itself more viable. However important we tanners might like to think ourselves we are a small industry and teaching leather is expensive as it requires not just laboratories but a tannery and all that goes with it.  A big expense for fifty or sixty students and only possible if short courses for big numbers of others who need a little knowledge of leather can run alongside it. That way we can afford to keep the fundamental tannery technician and tannery chemist training growing which is an area of steadily increasing demand. Alternate courses in the old European leather schools have nearly all been lost and it does not look as though many of the other international schools, apart from Brazil, are quite ready to fill the gap.

And equally important is that all of us who work in leather use all our skills to help open doors worldwide to let other parts of the University gain access to sell their courses. Leather may offer something unique to the University but we cannot keep hoping for the support of the University if we do not help it extract some meaningful value from that uniqueness.

Outstanding Alumni

Northampton graduates
Northampton graduates

So it is really good to see the University run a degree ceremony for Hong Kong business graduates the evening before the start of the APLF fair.  And this year to take the opportunity to use it as an opportunity to properly acknowledge with Honorary Degrees those of our Alumni who graduated many years before we became a degree awarding University and have subsequently made a significant contribution to the industry. One thing that is clear is that our alumni are special. There is a chap in London who calls himself the special one, but he needs to make a trip to Northampton to learn what being truly special means. Northampton leather graduates span the world from America to New Zealand, cover every aspect of the supply chain from raw to retailer and beyond. Their knowledge of leather and business stands out, along with a quite outstanding comradeship that is the envy of every alumni group.

So on Sunday last the University was proud to award degrees to:

David Burgess
Barney Crawford
Sateesh Damle
John Ettling
Geoffrey Githinji
Reginald Hankey
Jon Hopper
Iain McFadyen
Steve Miller
Jonathan Muirhead
Richard Pai
Juan Manuel Salazar
Stephen Trantum,
Christopher Tysoe

This is an amazing list of senior executives who continue to drive the leather industry towards being one of the cleanest and best sustainable processing industries anywhere.  The transformation in product and processing they have overseen in the last two decades has been quite amazing.

At the same event the University also awarded an Honorary Doctorate to Derek Dickens for his lifelong support for the leather industry. Derek founded the Hong Kong Leather Show thirty years ago this year at a time when the industry was floundering as it tried to engage in the newly emerging Asian markets. In so doing he created an effective catalyst for all the transformation that was to follow and a trade show that continues to evolve so that the 2014 event was just as relevant and vital to the industry today as the first in 1984.

ADDENDUM:  Very sadly Steve Miller’s Degree was awarded posthumously and was received on behalf of his family by Guilherme Motta of JBS