The Welsh Organic Tannery
Words by Anna Bowen, Photography by Heather Birnie
Tanning leather has always been a dirty business. Before the discovery of chromium processes in the Industrial Revolution, tanneries were built on the outskirts of towns to segregate the populace from the horrific smell associated with tanning.
Animal hides, if not dehaired by the application of urine or lime, were left for months to putrefy so that the hair could be removed. The skins were then softened by kneading for hours (usually bare- handed) in a mixture of water and animal manure, usually dog faeces collected by children. An alternative to this method was soaking in brain matter. Either way, the action of bacterial enzymes was needed to soften the skin.
Today those methods have been relegated to history, but modern methods of leather tanning, reliant on numerous chemical processes, have their own problems. Issues with environmental contamination and human health risks are abundant in areas that have a number of industrial tanneries, such as Kanpur in India. The Welsh Organic Tannery offers an alternative; sheep and goat skins turned into rugs here in Wales, using methods that do not rely on the potentially harmful chemicals of the usual industrial methods. With sheep wool at low prices and margins tight on farms running small ruminants, business owners Steve and Emma Allum are keen to encourage goat and sheep owners to consider tanning skins as another income stream.
“We want to get other smallholders and farmers to understand the benefit of turning their skins into rugs as it is currently a huge lost revenue.”
The inspiration behind setting up the tannery came from the owners’ own experience having goat skins processed. Impressed by the finished product, and encouraged by an established tanner, they decided to invest in the skills and resources necessary to set up the only organic tannery in Wales.
Using vegetable tannins and a bleach- free process, animals that have been kept to the specifications of organic certification schemes can have their skins sold as organic rugs. For animals coming from conventional farms the skins can be sold as produced through natural methods on a small scale in Wales.
The tannery currently has five tanks, but has space to expand as demand for tanning increases. Recently interview for the BBC, the business has so far grown organically, however with a brilliant product and an environmentally friendly solution to an industry problem, the Welsh Organic Tannery is making sheepskin green.