Isn’t it amazing what people come up with? Who would have thought that our ancestors would have been able to look at an oak tree, look at a cow hide and then figure that by combining the two through a complicated process you could end up with leather, one of the worlds most useful and enduring materials. I imagine the process was developed over the course of many, many generations but still – it’s quite a thing.
This spring we’ll be heading back into Pengelli woods, Pembrokeshire to start peeling oak. The oaks are felled (using axes) and then the bark eased away from the wood in what ideally is a satisfying and fluid operation. It is, however, often the case that our unpracticed arms make heavy work of it and the woods are filled with the grunts of those trying to relearn a lost art.
Oak bark (as well as chestnut) is full of tanins and as a result was the raw material used by all UK tanneries to turn raw hide into leather. Practices have changed and now most leather is tanned using chromium. However, J & FJ Baker, based in Devon still use oak bark in the tanning process and hence, provide a market for coppice workers like ourselves.
When we went to the woods last spring for our first season of peeling we were really scrabbling in the dark and were reminded how quickly traditional skills can be forgotten. We came across a variety of photos of bark being peeled which I’ve included below. We also stumbled across a brilliant video of the late, great Bill Hogarth making it look so, so easy.