Exploring process and materiality at Britain’s last oak-bark tannery
Long abundant in oak trees, Britain historically had a thriving oak bark tanning industry with one, two or even three tanneries in almost every village working to cure the local hides. Fast forward to present day and the only remaining traditional oak-bark tannery can be located in Devon; a family business which traces its roots back to Roman times and has been with the current Baker family for over 150 years.
Producing exceptionally hardwearing and robust leather, the tannery supplies the most exclusive shoemakers, saddlers, and leatherworkers all over the world, and was the obvious material source for a recent design collaboration between furniture designer-maker Gareth Neal and Bill Amberg Studio, which resulted in the stylish leather backed Hamylin Chair (pictured).
The lengthy & environmentally friendly process is key to the quality of the leather, and has been brought to life in the photographs of Joss McKinley who visited the tannery in 2013. His pictures below capture the 12 month journey of the leather which comes in as raw hide, is stripped of its hair, then submerged in numerous tanning pits for three months before being lain flat in deeper pits for a further 9 months to complete the gentle and irreversible process.