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Friday, 22 May 2015

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The gloves are off as Andy revives Hexham tradition

THE leather work industry that once dominated Hexham is about to be rekindled with a new generation of crafts people.

The creator of Grayson Perry’s much discussed Scrotal Sac handbag, Hexham leather worker Andy Bates, and Northumberland College have joined forces to produce a 15-week creative leather work course designed to revive Hexham’s once renowned association with the ancient art.

Set to run each Friday from February 7 onwards at the college’s Hexham campus, the course will explore both the past and the potential future of the industry that once employed 20 per cent of local people.

Andy said: “This hands-on course will introduce students to the skills of traditional, English leather work which they will then be able to use to create contemporary leather goods, historical pieces and works of art.

“The start of this course will mark the re-invigoration of a tradition which continued for over 1,000 years in Hexham until it died out completely in the early 20th century.”

During the 18th and 19th centuries the leather industry was all-important to the town, as historian A.B. Wright explained in his History of Hexham, published in 1823.

The number of leather crafts evident on the streets proliferated to such an extent that in 1662, the good burghers of Hexham established a market where the goods could be traded.

English law had decreed in the 14th century that the leather trades should be separated into their distinctive disciplines, comply with national legislation and be regulated at local level by newly-instituted leather guilds.

Over time, two guilds took shape in Hexham: The Tanners and Shoemakers, and The Skinners and Glovers.

By the early 1800s, it was the latter guild and the Hexham Tans they produced for which the town was best known – they put the bread on the table for over 1,100 of Hexham’s 6,000 inhabitants

A.B. Wright reported that in 1823, 71 men and boys were employed as leather dressers and glove cutters, 40 boys were employed as dusters and 1,000 women worked from home, actually sewing the gloves.

One firm alone was turning out 600 pairs of gloves a week and the town as a whole was producing over 280,000 pairs a year, using some 98,000 skins.

The production of the skins was an industry in itself, of course, and it was responsible for the unappetising character of the Cockshaw area, in particular, for many a generation.

The “Stinky Burn” that ran through Cockshaw – redolent of the fish oils, lime solutions and rotting animal flesh it carried away – came to symbolise leather production in Hexham.

But the gloves themselves, made of the softest, finest leather dyed with ochre imported from Holland, smacked of wealth and gentility.

They were reserved for ceremonial occasions and prized to the extent they were given as favours, pledges and security in financial transactions and even mentioned in wills.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, traders travelled from all over the United Kingdom to buy the skins, live farm animals and gloves sold at the Hexham and Corbridge markets of the time, but then, slowly and surely, the tide began to turn.

The leather trade in Britain began to decline when restrictions on foreign imports were lifted and import duty was abolished.

It led to large scale lay-offs in Hexham, as well as other gloving areas across the country.

In 1882, trader William Robb noted that glove production was down to 450 dozen pairs a year, and four years later a trade directory noted there were only two manufacturers left in Hexham.

As far as Andy Bates is concerned, Hexham could recapture the essence of that golden age. However, gloves are but one of many products his students could turn their hands to.

Andy himself has been making bespoke, hand-stitched pieces for TV, film, re-enactment groups and museums for 30 years.

Besides that handbag, he has made a plethora of period pieces, including sheaths, cups and body armour, for the Lindisfarne Gospels exhibition in Durham, for programmes on the Discovery Channel and Channel 4, and for the Grange Park Opera.

In 2013, he was shortlisted in the national Craft Skills Awards for his teaching work.

Currently writing the definitive book on leather work for the Bloomsbury publishing house, he aims to inspire a new generation during the new course.

Northumberland College’s area programme leader, Patrick O’Doherty, said: “We are thrilled to be working with Andy Bates on this exciting new course.

“There is a shortage of well-trained leather workers in the UK and this course could be the first step towards a career as a designer-maker.

“However, it will also be equally enjoyable for those who want to learn the craft as a hobby.”

For further details about the course, ring (01434) 605050 or email hexham.centre@northland.ac.uk