A small group of Epic Trippers (Adrian, Hakim, Matt) met in leafy Huyton where Keith Hanshaw had generously agreed to show us around. His uncle Steve founded the business as a master craftsman in 1966, and Keith has been innovating by introducing digital fabrication into the mix — we couldn’t wait to get a look at how this all worked.
The laser cutter gets used for creating custom jigs, and for various prototyping duties, like creating custom designs for buckles. The alternative to the latter is to get custom cutting dies machined: these are brutally efficient for mass production, but too expensive/slow for fast iteration.
Keith has also innovated by introducing a top-of-the-range UV printer. We watched as he printed a design directly onto leather for a new customizable satchel range they’ve partnered on. This allows them to do single or small-batch designs which would be otherwise impossible (getting printed leather from tanneries requires committing to at least 1,000 satchels in that design.) As well as the cost of the printer, learning to use it effectively with a pliable material like leather took them 18 months.
Keith admits that the Leather Satchel Co. is the smallest of the three big players in the UK (Cambridge Satchel, and Zatchel are the big fish) but is confident that they’re the “market leader” in terms of craftmanship, quality, innovation, and customization (from what we saw in the trip, this seems plausible.) Part of this is through the investment in digital fabrication, but actually much of it is from retaining the skills as master craftsmen in-house rather than out-sourcing.
The other major factor is the relationships with partners. None of us knew much if anything about tanneries, but it’s a fascinating topic. They work with a number of them, mostly in the Netherlands for various reasons: the UK ones have mostly closed (though there’s a resurgence in small-scale craft tanning), Southern European tanneries tend to produce harder leather which is good for shoes (due to the grass in the cows diet being less rich!), Indian ones have been implicated in environmental issues (with the chrome chemicals used in the colour dying getting flushed into the water system), and Eastern European tanneries use such different processes that they’re harder to work and communicate with. On that last point, Keith mentions that as a customer they’ve effectively had to teach their suppliers how to provide exactly the best sort of leather for them to work with!
The vast majority of leather satchels are sold to Asia — though there is even a Chinese counterfeiter of their products, the traditional British craftmanship is massively popular. Export requires a keen understanding of differences in expectation: even the high-quality stitching used for the European market had to become even more consistent to avoid whole batches getting rejected by the Japanese!
Afterwards, in the Epic Trip tradition, we went for a drink (Camp and Furnace) and mind-expanding converation about world domination, authenticity, RFID tags, Perl 6, and why QR codes are rubbish.