The New Kid on the Leather Block
When helping his father look after their farm’s goats, Jack Millington spotted the skins were going to waste. The UK’s newest tannery in more than a century, Billy Tannery, is the result
Article by Rupert Watkins Photography by Andy Barnham
With ancient roots – leather tanning dates back in this country to Roman times – there is a long, distinguished though sadly now much reduced history of leather tanning in the UK. However, into this small arena has recently stepped Britain’s most recently founded tannery; what is more, it is specialising in goat’s skin rather than the more normal cow hide.
Billy Tannery is the brainchild of Jack Millington and Rory Harker. Started in 2017, the germ of the idea came some years earlier with Jack’s father, a farmer near Northampton, starting to supplement his dairy herd with goats. Jack helped in selling the meat and quickly noticed there was no system in the UK for making use of the skin, “it just seemed such a waste to see these skins thrown away,” Jack recalls.
Getting in contact with the local University of Northampton proved fruitful. Given Northampton’s role as the epicentre of English shoe making, the university’s Leather School had been following the declining fortunes of British leather and had themselves been pondering a possible micro-tannery to preserve skills and breathe fresh life into the industry.
Jack had already sourced two drums from a defunct Somerset tannery and, in consultation with a tannery engineer, calculated they could be transported and placed in the unused stables at his parent’s farm. Paul Evans, a retiring lecturer at the University of Northampton came on board to consult, “he was the person who taught us everything about tanning. As from the beginning we wanted to be as sustainable and environmentally low impact as possible, Paul also helped us optimise that tanning process and the various treatments to fit the vision we had in our heads.”
Billy Tannery uses whole skins, they arrive salted for preservation purposes. Jack deals with the same abattoir that supplies Cabrito. Set up by chef James Whetlor, Cabrito has been providing goat’s meat for the growing restaurant demand and Jack’s request for skins allowed James and the abattoir to sell on the one remaining part of the animal that had been going to waste. As Billy Tannery has found it feet, Jack’s demand for skins has slowly grown, “there is still a very small world of hide merchants still out there,” he remarks and Jack is in contact with a number of them though Cabrito remains his major supplier.
Upon arrival the first pre-stage of leather tanning is referred to as beamhouse. This is where the skins are soaked overnight in an alkaline lime liquor whilst being gently turned ever hour. The skin is thoroughly soaked and any extraneous hair falls out. Enzymes are then added to the solution to bring up the pH level before the skins are transferred to the second drum for tanning.
Mimosa bark is used for the tanning. Billy Tannery constantly strives to use the absolute minimum amount of tanning agents possible to both keep to final product as natural as it can be and to aid in keeping their process as sustainable as possible – all liquids are recycled. The skins are tumbled in the mimosa bark solution before being left to drip dry. Jack comments that as well as mimosa bark, they are experimenting with other tanning solution including used coffee granules and brewing grains. Once drip dried, the skins are pegged out in the drying room for another 24 hours. In this hot and dry room, the skins need to be stretched out and pegged down otherwise they will shrivel up. The now dried leather is referred to as crust leather still being in an unfinished state.
Billy Tannery works with a local leather finishers. Goat has a far more pronounced grain and texture than cow hide and Jack and Rory were keen to show this off. As Jack remarks, at this finishing point many in the leather industry want an unblemished finish free of any inconsistencies and use a lot of pigmentation to gain that. “We decided to be different, take a step back and have the bare minimum applied. We wanted to show off those imperfections, those details that make goats leather what it is and make every final item different.” Given leather marketing has traditionally lead people to look for that flawless finish, there is a new story to be told about the natural imperfections and the uniqueness that comes with them and it’s a story Jack is seeing ever more people receptive to hearing.
The finished goat’s leather is used in Billy Tannery’s own range of bags and wallets. Given the tannery’s links to goat herding and the animal’s meat it is unsurprising Jack remarks a range of leather aprons are also being introduced. Beyond that they are looking at prototype shoes. This aspect of the business has proven to be the biggest challenge, neither Jack nor Rory are product designers (Jack is in freelance marketing and Rory is a graphics designer) but they were able to bring in design consultant Simon Benton (who’s also done work for Purdey) and they also found a small workshop in Somerset to manufacture their wares.
Given the hardiness of the goat, it is unsurprising their skin is durable and robust; though thinner than cow hide, that equivalent thickness is far tougher. The resulting bags and briefcases are thus much less rigid and unstructured than traditional cow leather alternatives. Being thinner skin means Billy Tannery can do both normal leather and suede – simply using the reverse of the skin – although there are no suede Billy Tannery products yet, Jack mentions they are experimenting with some of the most badly marked skins.
Looking to the future, Jack is looking to keep the product range tight and only carefully expand. “We’ve reached a take-off point now in many ways, we know how the leather behaves, how to make the most out of it. We’ve also had construction feedback from our workshop in Somerset that is helping evolve what we offer.” The pair are keen to keep links with the food industry and pursue collaborations with chefs, he remarks they have a window display at Temper Soho and for 2018’s London Craft Week ran a collaborative goat masterclass with the restaurant. With this synergy in mind, Billy Tannery is looking at small items such as bill and menu holders and is experimenting with possibility of goat skin bar stool covers. “We always want to try to do something a little offbeat and unusual,” Jack smiles.
Over Billy Tannery’s journey, Jack recalls the help and assistance of many in the British leather industry. Early on, they were invited to a Leathersellers’ Livery Company dinner, “we found a friendly community who were very generous with their advice,” he says, “though it is clearly much smaller than its heyday, it really does seem that those surviving firms are innovative and thriving.” Billy Tannery is clearly both those. Those looking for British tanned leather and something a trifle different should hunt down the goat.
Riddle’s road trip was generously supported by Jaguar Land Rover with the kind loan of a Jaguar XF R-Sport Saloon (RRP from £35,735) #riddleroadtrip