Traditional Saddlery Training With Barrie Swain – Day 1

  • by

Today was a fairly momentous day.  It was day one of my saddlery training with Barrie Swain.  The training is being held at the Walsall Leather Museum in the West Midlands, UK.  Walsall being one of the world capitals for saddlery and luxury light leather goods.  A video record is being made of the training to capture the skills of one of the worlds last remaining experts in traditional Victorian saddlery.

The time lapse video below shows several hours compressed into 30 seconds.  It gives a sneak peak from behind the cameras of the first day of training.  I intend to post updates if possible from time to time and the plan is for the  recordings to be edited to produce a documentary and some short videos that will be played in some undecided online and physical locations.  Watch this space!

What makes this training special is that this is a passing on of traditional skills and knowledge.  Victorian saddlery is a dying discipline due to the economics of saddle production.  Just like many other trades.  Once the experts in these trades and disciplines are gone, so are the skills and knowledge, perfected over hundreds of years.  This is my chance to do something to help save this traditional craft.

It all began when I met Barrie for the first time about a year ago at his beautiful and almost ancient house.  It seems he took a liking to me and after some months, while discussing how these old trades and crafts were dying, he offered to train me.  This was an unexpected opportunity that I graciously accepted.  Some months down the line, after much preparation and planning and many delays, the training finally commenced today with a full studio set up to carefully capture these important moments from four different angles and with plenty of lighting and zero distractions or interruptions.

Barrie was trained in saddlery at the age of 14 by a 71 year old Victorian saddler.  He worked, with great success, as a saddler for approximately 60 years and gained great acclaim in many parts of the world.  He has won awards and held several patents over the years.  Barrie is an expert in all types of saddle manufacture.  He is also one of the few remaining experts in the production of traditional side saddles.

Although some disagreed with his methods I am convinced that if made and fitted correctly Barrie’s saddlery methods produce some of the most comfortable and safe saddles both for horse and rider.  His care and passion for both horse and rider I have not witnessed elsewhere.  Unsurprising that he has made saddles for some very prominent people.

Although I would love to share the details of the differences and pros and cons of modern versus traditional saddlery, I choose not to do so here and if I receive any interest in the subject I may write about it in the future.  Probably under Barrie’s guidance!

What you are seeing in the time lapse video below is the process of preparation of the saddle tree.  Raw hide is attached to the sides of the saddle tree to help strengthen it.  This is a particularly important stage when making bespoke saddles during which notches are sometimes cut into the saddle tree to make a more precise fit on the horse.  Two saddles are being made concurrently.  Barrie shows me how to do the task on one saddle and I follow by repeating the same steps.