“A girl in my class whose sister was at Cordwainers. She brought in a pair of gloves that she’d made. I thought ‘wow, I’d love to be able to do that.’ I liked sewing, doing crafty stuff. So I thought ‘that’s what I want to do’.”
Emma, the only female bench worker at Alfred Dunhill tells us about how she came to work at the factory. To get to the level of ability that is required she spent many years honing her skills. Cordwainers college in the East End was central to her learning.
“Eventually I got a place. I was there for three years. I didn’t do glove making though! I did two years of leather goods – small stuff, handbags. Third year was saddlery which is where I learnt this,” Emma tells me as she demonstrated the stitching of a handle.
“You’ve got to want to do it because you love doing it; because there’s no money in it, not at the bench level anyway. We all love what we do, we’re craft people. I like it because it’s traditional. I love doing stuff with my hands. I’ve always made things.”
As Emma chats she continues her saddle stitching with impressive dexterity. Using wax to help grip and stop the thread from coming undone, she stitches sturdy pieces of leather together in near effortless fashion. “I get told off at home for doing the taps up too tightly!”
I ask if the processes have changed at all over the years. “The traditional side hasn’t. The materials have changed though. With bridle leather the tanning has changed due to different chemicals. The properties change and the leather doesn’t do what you want it to.
“Some leathers lend themselves easily to being edge dyed because they have a lot of natural fat in them. Other things… like it is not very water resistant. So if you’re using glue and you drop some on the leather - some leathers it will just wipe straight off, with others it’ll wipe the colour from it. You’ve got to be aware of what you’ve got in front of you.”
Emma moves on to show us the process of edging leather. “You don’t want a sharp edge on a bridle. That followed through from when I worked in the saddlery trade. A customer does not want to feel a sharp edge on a bag so we take the edge off. There’s different sizes of edge tool. This is a super-duper one, only to be used in certain circumstances. You need to do both sides.”
Following edging Emma applies a dye to the leather edges. “You wipe it on, put plenty on. Everyone has their technique. All you’re doing is buffing it – because the fibres are damp, smoothing it.”
Finally Emma shows us the art of pricking. “It’s where we make holes. You just need a mallet and one of these,” she says, picking up what looks like a fork with closely spaced prongs, “They’re calculated as stitches to the inch. Biggest we use is 5 to the inch. I’ve got a 13 to the inch, that’s for bridle work. You put it next to your crease line, give it a whack. The aim is not to go all the way through, just to give an indication as to where to go when stitching.” Emma's years of experience mean that she makes it look simple.
As we make our way off the factory floor we take the opportunity to have a quick chat with Rick who started at Alfred Dunhill ten years ago. We talk about the history of the place and the type of people who work there. “We like it here. There’s a buzz about the place. When there’s work to do, we’re like bees in a hive,” Rick muses before concluding, “It’s nice to know that one of the big houses has an English workshop isn’t it?”
All photos by Robin Mellor