Published: February 23, 2022
Mike Redwood explains how leather, especially luxury goods, has resisted mass production practices in favor of tradition and craftsmanship.
I recently found a response on my Instagram account lamenting the loss of craft skills in the United States. I had posted photos showing a handcrafted fox and hare topping a new thatched roof in our English village, a signature of the thatcher at the end of a major job (right).
Craft skills like this are important and especially for leather. Manufacturing leather products in high-volume factories or small workshops requires manual and visual labor at some point, as well as in tanneries where every tanner knows that although their product is made to strict specifications for a functional coherence, it is the art and creativity in the aesthetics that make the particularity of leather.
Since the ultimate expression of this aspect lies in the trade of luxury goods with companies like Hermès, it is a story that begins and ends in France. In July 1785, future U.S. President Thomas Jefferson joined French gunsmiths at the Chateau de Vincennes, just outside Paris, for a demonstration of making or repairing guns using interchangeable parts.
Honoré Blanc, a gunsmith from Avignon, showed how he could dismantle 50 firing mechanisms from a musket and quickly rebuild them using parts taken at random from boxes of spare parts placed in front of him. The traditional gunsmith’s trade required that every element—the faceplates, main springs, and powder pans—of every mechanism be carefully adjusted to fit.
It is said that Jefferson himself built several mechanisms and quickly acquired a high level of skill. America lacked craftsmanship and workers, so he pushed the concept, although it wasn’t until 1820, when the United States built its Harper’s Ferry Armory in West Virginia, that the “first artifacts of truly machine-built, made-anywhere production lines” were actually built.
This concept of breaking tasks down into specific parts and manufacturing them precisely for assembly later in the production line was the basis of the mass production and fame of the Ford Motor Company. It offered society enormous advantages in terms of volume, lower costs and high levels of employment, but, of course, with less skilled and lower paid workers.
While the concept of mass production to produce cheaper products in large quantities to meet the demands of the growing middle classes became a global production norm, in Europe and other places change was slower. and some skills have survived, though mostly in danger today. In France, the craftsmanship of luggage, saddlery, gloves and footwear became the foundation of what is now known as the modern luxury industry.
Companies like Hermès don’t want to compromise on the methodology they’ve used from the start with their famous bags. In addition to having recently opened a training center, they announced the opening of three new workshops in Louviers, Tournes and Riom.
They have already opened nine new factories since 2010, which shows that they are a big employer of artisans and are not interested in risking the quality of their items in the name of higher production.
As these ancient skills continue to decline, we have seen luxury houses take over specialist tanneries primarily to retain the know-how, rather than to seek exclusive access. Chanel has been particularly good at buying businesses where they fear financial or succession issues will mean the loss of old skills. They have a large collection of embroiderers, cobblers, tanners, glove makers, button makers and Scottish knits among many others.
This is encouraging, but elsewhere many of these heritage trades are still on the way out. In the United Kingdom, the manufacture of hooves, the manufacture of sporran, parchment and vellum, the manufacture of oak bark and the production of horse collars are redlisted, the manufacture of gloves, the manufacture of shoes and boots (including lasts), side saddles and vegetable tanning (pit method) of concern. . I’m sure similar stories can be told in other parts of the world, with few white knights like Chanel to save them.
At a time when companies are struggling to recruit, it is easy to ignore these age-old professions. Yet Chanel has shown that, although ancient, they can be immense sources of innovation without compromising tradition or craftsmanship. While a large number manufacture luxury leather goods in a few markets, the higher volume production of leather goods of all types in the rest of the world still requires practical skills, sometimes providing huge levels of employment and good quality, with training and career paths available.
Leather remains one of the world’s great employment opportunities. While interchangeable parts have transformed the production of many items, leather goods manufacturing cannot be pushed so far down the road to mechanization, and leather remains one of the world’s great employment opportunities, which robots will not fly. And the same skills can do the repair, so little needs to be discarded.
Follow Dr. Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood
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