A Dreamy Voyage Of Discovery Through A Factory

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One may wonder what is the charm in walking around a factory that produces bridal leather.  It may well be true that most people would take minimal interest in such a thing.  For someone who loves leather though, this is a dream.  Especially when the factory belongs to one of the biggest names in hand finished traditional English bridal leather.  Sedgwick leather enjoys worldwide recognition and I got to spend the day walking around the factory with Phil who kindly permitted me to take lots of photographs while explaining the various stages in the production of bridal leather the Sedgwick way.

I had been to meet Phil on a few occasions previously when I was first starting off.  I was never able to see behind the scenes until the Walsall Leather Museum invited me to join a small group for a tour of the factory.  I was ready, for some reason, to see a slick looking production line and what I saw was a pleasant surprise.

We first left the offices to enter the factory from the point at which the tanned whole hides enter the factory.  The very first thing we saw was the maintenance workshop.  Nothing like the clean crisp place I expected.  The next room was the one in which the still soaking wet hides are trimmed and then shaved to get them to the required thickness.  No clean crisp production line here either.

We then entered the room where the leather is shaved again to give it even thickness after which were the huge wooden tumblers where the leather is sometimes dyed through (aka through dyed).  No clean slick production line.

I think the point is made.  This place was surprisingly (and pleasantly) not the modern, white, clean ‘roboticised’ churner.  There were even some aspects of the factory that were really quite aged yet functioning.  Prior to my visit I did not understand the point.  I couldn’t help thinking that this is overpriced leather with nothing to show for it.  After seeing the factory and having used Sedgwick bridal leather, it is clear what the point is.  It would take too long to explain here the merits of Sedgwick bridal leather and the production techniques used to achieve them.  Suffice it to say that there are extra processes that give this lovely leather its hardwearing characteristics, density, weight and appearance.

Moving on, the next step is flattening the grain side which is done by hand.  The surface of the leather is rubbed with some force using a special tool made of stone or thick glass.  From there the leather is soaked in vats of melted tallow and then hung in the same room where it is very warm, for the fats to fully penetrate the leather.  From here the leather is pressed to force the fibers together which gives the leather increased density.  The final step before finishing is light correction of the grain.  Sedgwick bridal leather is lightly corrected which means that the grain side (top surface) is sanded lightly.  Not enough to completely remove the natural grain texture and markings but just enough to give a smooth and blemish free surface.

The finishing process mainly comprises of dying and feeding.  The pigment is sprayed on to the hides in painting booths.  This is not a surface coating but rather a water based pigment that penetrates the upper surface of the leather.  Finally the leather is carefully selected, the grain side polished lightly and then fed by hand on large slate slabs using Sedgwick’s own proprietary leather food, a mixture of tallow, beeswax, fish oil, lanolin and vegetable oil.  This process requires a person to brush the mixture over the whole hide again and again until the leather food penetrates the surface of the leather.

The leather is then placed on shelves and within a day or two the bloom appears on the surface in the form of white streaks across the whole surface of the leather.  Something quite typical of quality bridal leather.

The photographs below show the machinery and some of the stages in the process of leather production at the Sedgwick factory.  I have not explained all of the detail as there is too much.  The smells, temperature differentials, humidity, sounds and sights and the differences in air flow are difficult to describe in a short space, if not impossible.  And then there are the processes for the cleaning of water and keeping pollution to a low minimum which are topics in themselves.  If there is any interest I will consider further posts that go into some more depth.  For now I hope that the reader gets enough from this to appreciate what goes into making some of the worlds best bridal leather.


The maintenance workshop.


The flesh side of the hide is shaved to reduce the thickness.


Leather hanging on old wooden stands. 


Another type of leather shaving machine.


A machine for further correcting the thickness for a very even thickness across the hide.


Tumblers for through dying the hides.


The hot room where the hides are soaked in pure tallow and then hung.


Hides hanging in the hot room after being soaked in tallow.


Hides hanging to cool and dry after being soaked in tallow.


The grain side of the hides being smoothed by hand over solid slate workbenches.  A very physical process.


The wet leather hanging to dry after being manually flattened.


Hides stored for finishing.


Stained hides hanging to dry over some ‘ancient’ trolleys that are still much in use.


The spraying booths where the pigment is sprayed onto either one or both sides of the hide.  Only very low toxicity materials are used in the factory.  No special breathing apparatus and equipment needed here.


The solid slate benches where the dyed, finished hides are fed.  All done by hand.