Bespoke Shoes Unlaced – a shoemaker's blog

Friday, 27 September 2019

University of Northampton new Leather Centre and Future of Training Workshop

Welcome back good shoe folk. Last week we attended an interesting debate organised by Leather UK at Northampton University's wonderful, waterside campus on a bright, sunny day. The focus of the day was reviewing the current workforce situation - the majority are over 40 and very few youngsters are being attracted into the industry - and how to attract and retain talent in leather, footwear and fashion across Europe. 


Serious conversations were had with presentations from 

  • Kerry Senior, Leather UK discussing the current situation 
  • John West, Skills and Training Manager, UKFT looking at apprentceships
  • Rachel Garwood, Director of the new ICLT (Institute for Creative Leather Technologies) discussing higher education
  • Gustavo Gonzales-Quijano, Secretary General, COTANCE discussing skills needed for a modern leather industry
  • Rhona Ferris, Human Resources Advisor, Scottish Leather Group sharing their industry perspective on the benefits of training and education for the workforce

The outcome from the various presentations and discussions? That to succeed, the industry really needs to work together 

  • to address negative perceptions and myths surrounding the industry
  • to demonstrate just what a vibrant industry it is
  • to show the wide variety of career paths available to youngsters
  • to highlight that there is a shortage of people in the industry and therefore an opportunity to move quickly up the career ladder

Deep breath...and then it was on to a tour of the just-opened new ICLT (Institute for Creative Leather Technologies) the University's unique research and education centre. 

We last visited their old tanning education unit about 10 years ago. What a contrast the new space is, bright, airy and beautifully organised, the result of moving into a fit-for-purpose space designed around the equipment, materials and practises going on underneath its roof. 

The ICLT is designed to respond to the scientific and technological needs of the automotive, fashion, footwear and allied leather industries. 

The unit's Director, Rachel Garwood believes that:

"Understanding new and traditional leather processing techniques expands the possibilities of how leather can be used and...has an impact on diverse sectors, including medical and technological applications and partnerships into engineering, media and fashion".

The unit is very much a mix of the very traditional and the ultra modern showing that where a machine or approach works well there's no ned to change or replace it.

Leather pommel horses

An enthusiastic Tannery Manager, David Sherwood giving us the tour
Scraping drum for defleshing a hide

A tanning pit...on wheels

Salted hides

Hides before the fur and flesh are removed

Buffing wheel

One of the most exciting areas of the unit is the Microscopy suite. The suite includes a TESCAN scanning electron microscope and and light microscope, Oxford Instruments and large area Energy Dispersive X-Ray Analysis detector.

The magnification is magnificent! Take a look below....

The skin surface

The layers of a piece of hide

A houesfly
A bug

The surface of the bug's eye


And still closer

The hole where a hair follicle was; the spheres are the polymer used to coat the leather surface

No, not raspberries but pollen!

Thank you to Rachel, Dave and the team at the Northampton University for a fantastic and inspiring day. We're very envious of the student intake having such an amazing campus and facilities...

As well as one, two and three year courses there are short courses for professional development that can be combined with on-the-job training, so we're just working out which one of us is going first! 

Until next week happy shoemaking!