Can you tell us what you are up to at the moment and what’s inspiring you right now?
Right now, I’m filming more episodes of The Repair Shop. It’s lovely. It’s my foundation work and to be part of the show is incredibly humbling and good fun. It enhances everything I believe in. I’m also on a book tour as I’ve had my first biography published this year.
The book is mostly based in America – about living a wild life but with the foundation of what I do as a craftsperson – which kept me grounded and safe!
What’s inspiring me? Everything! I have a break from filming in October and I have so many projects planned from designing and making coats and luggage, re-creating lots of the patterns in the case makers workbooks that I’ve collected – using all recycled materials. Also I’m designing some new saddles and going to America!
How did you start your career in leather repair and restoration and what advice would you give to people today keen to do the same?
For me, it all started with my instant love of horses – from when I was very young. And being surrounded by creative parents. My mum was a seamstress. She could make anything! If you described what you wanted – she could just make it.
I remember being introduced to leather, visiting a leather factory with my parents who used to pick out the sheep leather they needed to make gloves. Witney in Oxfordshire was very well known for fine sheepskin leather.
I was enthralled with this material. You could buy bags of offcuts for pennies. And I used to make things. I remember sticking bits of leather together and making a belt. And I’d make saddles for my rocking horse. I also remember going to my local riding school and offered to clean the tack!. And my love of horses introduced me to our local saddle maker, Ken Langford and he introduced me to the saddlery trade. I said I wanted to be a saddle master – and he said ok, even though it was a male dominated industry – he said let’s see what we can do! I was 14 at the time. Terribly shy and awkward, dyslexic and yet this was something that really interested me.
Having written my book now, with the chance to reflect, I see my life as a series of happy accidents. I had to get a job to look after a pony. I had to save up for a used saddle. The saddle broke. And Ken said it was a sub standard saddle not worth repairing. He suggested I take it apart and see how saddles are made, so I did and found my career path.
I was always also re-making things. It became really natural to me. In the 70s when I was at college, I bought everything secondhand. Much of my wardrobe today is an array of colour and beautiful fabrics – all pre-reloved pieces. I have the same passion for saddle repair.
When I was working as a saddler, I would always modify saddles to accommodate customer needs. Rather than just saying, go and buy a new one!
One of my planned projects is to start secondhand saddle sales. Making sure every saddle has a full MOT and ready for re-sale.
You are a recognised Master English Saddle Maker. How long did it take to achieve that accolade and what kind of training or experience did you need?
Here in the UK, most people will do their training through the Society of Saddle Makers and their recognised schools. If you’re fortunate enough to get an apprenticeship – which I was – you do a combined apprenticeship with college work. I completed 2 years at Cordwainers College where I studied footwear, leather goods and saddlery. I then did my formal apprenticeship with Ken and other Masters too.
In my day it was 7 years of apprenticeship and then you enter a ‘Journeyman’ phase where you develop your skills. Although this process has been shortened today, it’s a fine balance of having a good foundation of training then spending the rest of your working life honing your skills.
I have never been motivated by money. It’s been 50 years of always wanting to do this work! It’s all I have ever wanted to do.
What are the joys and challenges in your work?
When I receive a commission for a saddle design. I love the process. It’s like creating a piece of art. I make the patterns and I can select my hides. I begin mapping out the leather. Where each piece will go – including the hardest wearing pieces – where the leather will receive the most stress. You cut your patterns in accordance with where each leather piece is needed best. We are very lucky in this country to have really well produced hides. English leather is definitely the best in Europe.
Each saddle feels like a piece of me. I have a ‘buy back scheme’ and through a registration process, I know where all my saddles are!
Creating something bespoke – it takes time. I want the saddles to last at least 100 years. So each saddle takes about 65 hours with fittings in between. But I also offer an after sales service because the relationship with horse and rider is on-going. It’s about the horse and rider combination. Getting the saddle right through understanding unique biomechanics.
What are your thoughts about the future of natural leather and why do you think it’s important to value the qualities of natural leather?
In my heart of hearts, I really do feel we are on the crest of valuing and appreciating well produced leather coming back into its own. We have an amazing group of people, foundations and societies working together to ensure leather is the highest quality with best practice in play including compassionate cattle rearing.
High quality leather should be costed accordingly and for me, we should appreciate good quality leather because it can last for hundreds of years.