In late 2016, English shoemaker Crockett & Jones unveiled an exclusive new leather to their lineup: Russian Grain.
They seemed quite giddy to show off the hatch grain article, and with good reason—the legendary leather was essentially extinct, but had been brought back to life by a yet-to-be-disclosed English tannery. Later, it was revealed that the creator of this new Russian leather was, in fact, the last oak bark tannery still operating in the United Kingdom: J & FJ Baker. Or, to the familiar, just Baker’s.
Baker’s is situated in the small English town of Colyton, inside the southwestern county of Devon at a site that has been used to tan leather for nearly two millenia. The River Coly just outside powers a 400-year-old water wheel mechanism used for purposes such as grinding up oak bark, and slowly agitating hides while they steep in the tanning pits. Many of the techniques and materials used in producing Baker’s leather would be recognizable to folks from 1862, when the Baker family purchased the tannery. In a world where brands (and their marketers) know history can be king, Baker’s means and methods of oak bark tanning are as regally old-fashioned as anything gets.
While many regard Baker’s as a premier source of leathers for equestrian use, and shoe soles, they may be best known for their work in replicating Russian leather. This leather—which, as the name suggests, originated in Russia—had been famed since the 17th century for its beautiful looks and uniquely powerful, pleasing fragrance, but its hard-wearing-ness and water resistance also distinguished it. The recipe and techniques used in its creation remained carefully guarded secrets for centuries. Too closely guarded perhaps: after the Russian Revolution of 1917, the institutional knowledge of making Russian leather was thought to be lost.
Then, in 1973, the 18th-century shipwreck of the Metta Catharina was discovered off the coast of England. Its cargo included several rolls of Russian leather, many of which were still miraculously intact and usable despite—or perhaps because of—spending centuries submerged in seawater and mud. Some of the original shipwrecked leather would later aid Baker’s as they sought to reproduce it, and after many years of research and experimentation, the tannery unveiled a Russian leather that is remarkably close to the original—right down to the scent of birch oil.
Andrew Parr, managing director of J&FJ Baker, presided over this momentous undertaking. A descendent of the Baker family, he has worked at the tannery since 1984. In our conversation below, he recalled the experience of reproducing this Russian leather, and also described many of the facets that make Baker’s and their oak bark tanning process truly one-of-a-kind.
Stitchdown: I understand that the site where your tannery is located has been used since the Roman times. Is that correct?
Andrew Parr: Yes. I mean, nobody knows when it started, but it’s always been a tannery. According to local history, there was a tannery here, which in those days wasn’t unusual, because every village had at least one tannery. It’s just that most of them have gone now.
Does the site still have any sort of vestiges left over from the Roman era?
No. The pits in the ground where we tan the hides are not even original. They are where the original pits were, and because they’ve had to be repaired over the years they most likely look the same, but they wouldn’t be the same because obviously the materials that are there now are replacements for what was there before.
So those pits predate when your family purchased the tannery back in 1862? Do you know if they were also used for oak bark tanning?
Oh yes, they’ve always been used for oak bark tanning. Oak bark tanning was the traditional method in England. In 1862, there was hardly any other type of tanning. Some places used to use other barks, like willow and birch, but oak bark was sort of the standard that was used, because there was so much oak in England.
How would you describe the differences between oak bark tanning and other types of vegetable tanning?
Each vegetable tannage has a slightly different characteristic. With oak bark tanning, you get a very tight fiber structure. The leather is hard-wearing, it has a very strong tensile strength, but it is also very light in weight. Whereas if you get like a mimosa [tannage], the leather’s much softer. It’s not so hard-wearing, but it will weigh quite a lot heavier. Chestnut is slightly different—it makes a harder leather, slightly more waterproof, and it tends to be heavier.
So the reason that someone would want an oak bark tanned leather, as opposed to another type of veg-tan, would be because it’s durable, yet lightweight?
Yes, also you get a very fine grain as well. It’s clean and clear because of the pit liming and the pit tannage. There’s been no mechanical action.
Does oak bark tanning tend to cost more than other types of tanning?
It’s a 12-month tan, and then you have to dress it afterwards, which takes another two or three months. It is more expensive just because of the time, really.
I was also curious to learn about some of the finishes you apply on some of your leather. I noticed, for example, that leathers like your harness or bridle have this sort of dubbin wax finish. I was wondering if you could tell me the story behind that.
Dubbin wax is traditional dressing. It’s not the only dressing we use, but it’s the one we use at the end. We put other oils and greases into the leather during the dressing process. But when we finish the staining, we then dubbin the leather on both sides. The dubbin is a mixture of fish oil and mutton tallow. We warm it in a sauce pan so it melts, and then we apply it with a brush by hand to both sides of the leather. Then you stack the leather, and that final dressing will just feed into both sides of the leather. When there’s an order for the leather, we just polish up the dubbin on the grain, and it gets to have a lovely shine to it.
Yeah, I was really pleasantly surprised by how much the leather completely transforms after just one quick, light brushing. I also noticed on some of the swatches I have, like the harness leather, that you apply the dubbin to the flesh side as well as the grain side, whereas the others like the bridle only have it on the grain side. What’s the reason behind that?
So normally, with a harness—well, it depends on who’s making the harness, because sometimes they’re just using one piece for the harness, so they like it [stained] black on the flesh. Other times they’re using two pieces for the harness, and they’re gonna stitch them flesh side to flesh side, so you get two grain [sides] and they don’t need it stained on the flesh side. With the oak bark bridles, we don’t do [a stain or wax] on the flesh. That’s just part of our sort of uniqueness for that piece of leather. It’s just done on the grain, and then you get a very nice tight, hard flesh that we finish in a different way. But the way we do it means that you can’t actually stain it as well.
I wanted to talk to you about some of your different leathers that are used in shoemaking. You’re well known for making different types of sole leathers and stiffeners. Has that business been a part of Baker’s since the beginning?
Yes. And we are a typical old-fashioned tannery, in that the old local tanneries used to do everything. They used to produce harness leather and bridle leather for local saddlers and farmers, and then they used to produce shoe leathers for the local shoemakers. Most tanneries then went on and specialized, but we never did. So we’ve always done both, we’ve always done shoe leathers and we’ve always done saddle leather and harness leather.
You also make some deeply beautiful leathers that can be used for leather goods as well as shoe uppers. The one I definitely want to ask you about is your Russian leather, which is a reproduction of the leather that was found in the wreck of the Metta Catharina. How did you come to reproduce it?
It’s one of those interesting stories. Those bits from the Metta Catharina started to surface back in the early ’70s. The divers who were bringing it up didn’t actually know what the leather was, but a shoemaker saw it and knew what it was. So, he started buying that up, and there was this sort of background interest. Obviously the supply of it was always going to be limited, because it was just what was in left in the ship. Some of it was spoiled by the seawater.
We were approached once or twice by people who asked, “Well, what do you think?” Then I said to one of the researchers who came to see us, “Well, look, if you can get us some more detail on the method of tanning and dehairing and whatever, we’ll—as a matter of interest—we’ll just put a few through and see what they come out like,” which is what we did.
But we needed to tweak it a bit, because for the Russians, it was a secret method, and the Russians always said that if anyone tried to escape with a secret, they would kill them—being Russian. [laughs] But, the girl who we were working with found a Russian script and got it translated, which helped quite a lot. Even then, it wasn’t the full method. Then she found another one and got that translated, which gave us a bit more, and slowly we managed to beat it together. It took us about five years.
Wow. So what was that process like then? Was it just a lot of trial and error?
I mean, it’s quite a lot of trial and error. We knew some things, because obviously we already knew how to dehair the leather and how to get it ready for tanning. But a lot of the old tanning process they used was quite secret. In fact, it turned out that a lot of it was done by ringing the leather by hand, because obviously calf skins are much thinner. So you can do a lot of hand work, but that tends to spoil the grain. There was a sort of in-between, where we actually improved on what they were doing, because they were getting a loose grain. We’ve actually got a better grain than the original.
But yeah, I mean, it was trial and error. We had quite a lot of experience with tanning, which helped, you know. We’d think, “well, we wouldn’t do that, because it wouldn’t work.” But there were things that we didn’t know that we had to find out.
Was it ever determined if the original leather was indeed reindeer, or was it a calfskin like yours?
It was very, very few reindeer. They used to use what they called young adults, which we would call well-grown calf, or stirks, in English terminology. But there were very few reindeer—that was a bit of a red herring.
What do you think is it about Baker’s Russian leather that makes it just so iconic? Is it just because it’s so true to the original article? Or is there a different reason?
Oh, I mean, it stands on its own. It’s a lovely leather. You can compare it with the original, but…if you look at our leather, it does have a lovely color to it. It’s all aniline stained, so there’s no pigment in it. The light goes through it and you get this lovely variation of color. It’s just a beautiful leather to look at. It’s got a lovely smell, got a lovely feel. It’s what a piece of leather should be.
That birch oil scent is so distinctive and honestly, until I actually had the chance to hold some of my own hands and smell it, I really didn’t fully grasp it. But yeah, it is some amazing stuff. The other calfskins that you produce—are those made similarly to the Russian leather?
Well, obviously the tannage is slightly different. Those are full oak bark, rather than the mixture of willow and birch bark. I suppose with the oils and greases we put in, they’re very similar, but then the staining is different and then the finishing process is different. So, some similarities mostly in the tanning and the dehairing, but not in the finishing.
Well, speaking of the tanning process, I wanted to circle back to that particular topic. I mean, you lay it out pretty clearly on your website. Is the whole process more or less the same as when the Baker family purchased the tannery? Have you changed much about the process since then?
Not in the way of the liming or the tanning, because it’s all done in the same pits. They all take the same amount of time. But there are one or two things that have changed. In the old days, a lot of dog dung was used. Well, we don’t do that any longer [laughs] for environmental reasons. I mean, that’s only a very slight change. But the dressings we use are traditional, so a lot of those would’ve been recognized in 1862. They were very similar.
I see. And then the drying process and everything else, that’s pretty much the same?
Well, the drying process—in the old days, leather used to get sort of hung up in the top of buildings. And then, it very much depended on the weather. So if you’ve got a really cold spell, the leather might actually freeze when it’s hanging up, and then take forever to dry. So back in the 1960s, we built a shed which is heated up to about 60 degrees Fahrenheit so that in the winter we can get consistent drying. So that is a change, because we’re not just relying on atmospheric drying.
That actually reminds me of a totally different question. We talked with Wickett & Craig, who do all-vegetable tanning here in the States. Something that they noted about their facility is that they actually have all of their pits above ground in order to control the temperature more easily. You mentioned that your pits are in the ground. Do you find that you have to be a little bit more mindful of what the ambient temperature is like with those?
No…I’ve slightly misled you when I say they’re in the ground, because some of them are in the ground and some of them are above the ground. But that’s not to do with the temperature. That’s because we are on the riverbank, and the river floods. The pits have to be built up higher so that the flood water doesn’t get into them.
Okay, I see.
But going back to temperatures—no, it’s very difficult to control the temperatures in the winter. The only way you can actually control it is by taking the tanning liquors out with a pump and putting them through a heat exchanger and just warming them up, which we wouldn’t normally do. We might possibly do it if we get a really cold spell, because everything slows down when the temperatures get below a certain level. But we would normally leave the leather as it is. Because it’s taking 12 months, all the butts and the harness will get the summer and the winter in a pit. So, by the time they’re finished, they are well-tanned.
Oh, so you’re pretty much exposing them to the highs and lows of each season. That makes sense.
That’s right, yeah.
Baker’s is the last oak bark tanner in the UK, correct?
That’s right, yes.
Why do you think that is? Why aren’t there any more left?
So to start, the mineral tannages came in, like chrome, and that was suddenly very, very much quicker, and there was a much higher turnover of hides and capital. Then things like mimosa and chestnut and quebracho started coming in from abroad. Those tannages are much quicker. You’re talking between four and eight weeks for a pit tannage, and then in a drum, well, you’re talking 10 days. So it was that speed of tanning and how quickly you could turn over your capital, which was very attractive to tanners because they could turn out a lot more leather in a year.
At that stage in England, there were many more shoe factories who were buying from them. The problem is, the shoe factory started going abroad, and cheaper leathers started getting imported to England. That’s where the tanners got undercut, and in the end, went out of business.
I see. So you’ve still stuck with oak bark tanning, but you have also expanded into doing more “mainstream” veg tanning, correct?
Right. We have a small veg tan yard in one of our buildings. That’s got a mixture of mimosa and chestnut. In that, we normally tan things like panel hides, things that we’re going to split. It’s very difficult to split out bark leather. But with the veg tan, because the fibers are more open, you can split. So we do things like veg tan and some full-length harness backs as well.
What does the future look like for J&FJ Baker? Do you feel like there’s still a place and an interest for the oak bark tanned leather that you make?
Yeah, I mean, you go through cycles. At the moment, people are really interested, and they like the story. And they like the difference too, it’s different from other leathers. It’s got a story to it. It’s sustainable, which is very much in vogue at the moment. So yeah, we get an awful lot of interest. Obviously it’s easier now with a website. You don’t have to go out and find customers, they tend to find you. So the future is good.
Well, I’m happy to hear that. Mr. Parr, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. I really appreciate it.
All photos courtesy of Tom Bunning, unless otherwise noted. Find his work on Instagram or at tombunning.com.