History in the details: Materials - Leather (part 3)

History in the details: Materials - Leather (part 3)

A brief history by costume and picture expert Jayne Shrimpton

Jayne Shrimpton, Professional dress historian and picture specialist

Jayne Shrimpton

Professional dress historian and picture specialist

Last month we examined the English medieval leather industry, manufactures and tanneries employing skilled craftsmen. The leather trade advanced during the 1500s-1700s, remaining important countrywide. In rural areas it was often an independent cottage industry, sometimes combined with farming. However leather-working also thrived in towns where animal hides were available as by-products of meat-processing and where finished goods could be sold.

Certain localities specialised in leather production, like Suffolk, known for leather-dressing and from where tanned hides and calf skins were transported to London. Norwich was also prominent, over half of its leather-workers being shoemakers. Parts of Yorkshire were notable for leather production, as were the Sussex and Kent Weald, Sussex oak ideal for tanning, the leather being shipped from Rye and neighbouring ports. Leather-working predominated in parts of the Midlands where the local corn fed to sheep and cattle imparted a special texture to their skins and hides. Leicester and Northampton were both significant tanning centres, tanners and leather-workers dominating industry in Leicester, Northampton developing as a shoemaking town from the 16th century. Northampton was also a key garrison town during and after the Civil War, its shoemakers supplying the army with boots.

Until the early 1600s the export of English leather goods carried high tariffs, keeping prices low and encouraging its wide use at home. Trained cordwainers and cobblers worked in all localities making and repairing (‘cobbling’) shoes and boots for the community. Saddlery and harness-making were also major pre-industrial trades, much of their work historically concerning farm horses. More specialised was the manufacture of bespoke coach and carriage harnesses – a separate trade closely allied to coach ‘trimming’, the making and fitting of quality upholstery and internal furniture for the luxury conveyances. Leather gloves became increasingly fashionable throughout the Tudor, Stuart and Georgian eras, their early manufacture relying on the skilled hand and eye of the craftsman. Before mechanisation, gloving was largely a cottage industry conducted in many areas, most notably in Worcestershire, Herefordshire, parts of Somerset and Oxfordshire.

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Other goods reflecting the manufacture and wide use of leather in the early modern period include leather dining chairs, leather-bound books, men’s leather jerkins and breeches. Also familiar were leather bottles and flasks called costrels, commonly used to carry water and other liquids, and to drink from, many country pubs being named ‘The (Old) Leather Bottle’. Leather grew more expensive when taxes were revised, fewer vessels produced, but some drinkers still use traditional leather ‘Black Jack’ beer tankards today and they remain entrenched in British social history

bag-maker displaying leather gloves and bags
This plate from The Book of Trades, 1568, shows the bag-maker displaying leather gloves and various bags, purses and pouches for wearing suspended from the waist
Tudor leather costrel or liquid carrier
Tudor leather costrel or liquid carrier – a form of vessel commonly used for centuries Shakespeare Birthplace Trust
Prince Rupert wears a buff coat
Prince Rupert, painted by Sir Peter Lely (1660s), wears a buff coat – the iconic military jerkin introduced during the English Civil war and made from oiled cowhide or ox-hide

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