A Hidden Leather Gem
Hidden away in deepest Buckinghamshire, TUSTING produces some stunning examples of the leather makers art
Article by Rupert Watkins
Leather has run in the blood of generations of the Tusting family. Currently under the direction of fifth-generation Alistair, this small company nestling in the picturesque village of Lavendon in Buckinghamshire, produces beautifully refined and elegant leather goods as well as collaborating with other illustrious British brands such as Aston Martin.
The firm was founded in 1875 by Alistair’s great-great grandfather as a tannery in the nearby village of Harrold. It quickly prospered in the late 19th century supplying the Northampton shoe industry – something the firm continues to do to this day – to the point where many of the community were employed at the tannery and the family funded and built the village hall. The firm’s founder Charles Pettit (his daughter married a merchant John Tusting) tapped into the huge demand for leather from the burgeoning shoe trade by sourcing part-tanned ‘crust’ leather from Indian tanneries and finishing it to the exact requirements of the shoemakers. And even today, as well as close relations with European leather makers, the firm continues to retain links to the same Indian family-run tanneries.
By the last part of the 20th century the economic and craft landscape was very different and the tannery closed in the late 1980s. At this time, one of the small leather goods firms TUSTING supplied with leather went into receivership and when Alistair’s father visited, he came away determined to keep the skills alive and some of its artisans employed. TUSTING began a new chapter as a premium leather goods firm and the firm has grown organically from there. “We are still a family firm,” says Gillian Tusting, the marketing director and Alistair’s wife, “we are very careful about expanding in a controlled and planned manner.” Like many family-run artisan firms in this country, one eye is kept firmly on the future health of the business a decade or two down the line – a thoughtful counterpoint to the short-termism of too many private equity backed “luxury” brands.
The TUSTING collection of leather goods is therefore kept very tight. Gillian explains that the company brings out very small seasonal collections but the vast bulk of TUSTING’s goods are perennials as they find customers are very considered and analytical in their purchases – in some cases, taking months to make enquires, compare and research before finally buying. “People are looking for statement pieces as they last and are timeless” she comments.
Over 2018, the company has consolidated and refined its best sellers, for example ensuring the some of their most popular women’s handbags are enlarged to take a 13 inch laptop, and pertinently TUSTING re-examined the interiors of all their products to ensure they were padded and tech enabled. Their best sellers remain handbags and holdalls and though between 50 to 60 per cent is for the export market, Gillian gratifyingly remarks that they have seen small but increasing numbers of savvy younger buyers in the UK wanting to invest in one top-grade item to see them through university and their early careers.
As for many British artisanal makers, the Japanese market remains critical for the company. Interestingly, TUSTING clientele in Japan is virtually completely male, Gillian explains, whereas their growing audience in China is a rough 80:20 female to male split. Every market has its own quirks, one of the firm’s largest sellers in Japan is a version of the brand’s Kimbolton women’s handbag. However, with an extra strap across top and in traditional colours, it has long found favour as a men’s tote bag in that market. The Chinese market is an evolving one, “we’re starting to see the Chinese market become increasingly discerning and to favour greater elegance and discretion” Gillian says, “we also find new colours that have done well here get picked up by the Chinese and year or two later.” The company is also making initial inroads into the South Korean market being stocked in the Dr Cowboy department store in Seoul.
Walking round the small workshop floor, Gillian mentions the leather grading aspect of TUSTING, which still supplies some of Northampton’s most famous shoe factories, is now only a small part of the business – most of the vast amount of leather seen in the warehouse will be turned into bags. Rolls of different leathers are stacked high; the firm uses a number of tanneries around the UK, Europe and further afield, including Pittards in Yeovil. TUSTING’s pattern knives are made locally and all pattern pieces – be it with a hand knife or cutting press – are always cut individually. Leather destined for visible edges is stained and sealed, one of the dirtier jobs on the floor, before being split. Splitting takes the thickness out of the piece of leather to ensure consistent thickness without taking away the tensile strength inherent in the grain. Once the leather panels and linings are ready the be put together, they go in front of a number of two-person teams for benching and flat-bedding. One person prepares or benches the leather shapes before they are actually sewn together on large flat-bed sewing machines. From here, the leather moves to the finishing area where the entire item comes together, takes shape and then has final attachments such as handles and studs added. With such a small team, Gillian reveals the self-policing quality control is exceedingly high, each item is checked at every stage and with many of the artisans proficient in more than one arena, rectifying errors is quick, “we do not allow any seconds to leave the workshop” she smiles.
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TUSTING has a small team of around 35, and in common with many British craft firms, some have been with the company for over 20 years; rather wonderfully, one of the artisans from the leather firm Alistair’s father rescued in the early 1990s is still working. There is low turnover according to Gillian and many of the staff live locally in Lavendon itself. There is also generational continuity, one of the girls who currently works staining the leather edges took over that role from her mother. It has on occasion been tricky to find new staff, “we always try to hire people who have done machining before” Gillian says, “they must have that basic aptitude and attention to detail.” Whilst TUSTING has pondered more structured apprenticeships, like other British craft firms, word of mouth and using the staff to put the word about when a role needs filling has proven quietly efficient and successful. It is still a world of precision and patience; Gillian mentions it can take up to two years to become a fully competent finisher.
In common with a large number of Britain’s artisanal makers, TUSTING also makes for a select few other well-known British brands, in particular, it makes the luggage which accompanies new Aston Martin cars. There are the standard ranges sized specifically to each Aston model or the firm can make bespoke luggage to match the trim of a custom vehicle interior. This type of contract making is often an important ‘second string’ to smaller manufacturers but also has the benefit of supplying a ready expansion-zone in their manufacturing capability for the growth of their own brands.
This small leather firm is thriving. Gillian reports that TUSTING is looking to continue carefully expanding its reach, looking at further partnerships with appropriate British brands. During 2018, it collaborated with Gleneagles Hotel in Perthshire to create a unique capsule collection of luggage only available at the hotel. Whilst still having quite a discreet leather brand profile, TUSTING’s quality, history and dedication to craftsmanship clearly shines through at every point; these are true investment pieces for those seeking the finest in English-made leather goods.