When Emma and Steve Allum charged Relocation, Relocation’s, Phil and Kirstie with finding them a property with a few acres of land, a two-hour drive in any direction from Bristol where Steve was working in government, little did they know that 17 years on they would have a smallholding with sheep and goats and be running Wales’s only organic tannery!
Pictured: Steve and Emma Allum. Photo by Roger Dangerfield
WELSH ORGANIC TANNERY’S DEDICATION TO PRESERVING AN ANCIENT TANNING PROCESS MEANS THAT THE ANIMAL BY-PRODUCT IS PRESERVED AS AN OBJECT OF BEAUTY
Today, their Carmarthenshire tannery transforms around 1,000 skins a year into the softest sheep and goatskins, items of beauty that last a lifetime. The Welsh Organic Tannery’s online store sells limited quantities of rugs, cushion covers, seat pads and footstools made from the various breeds of livestock the Allum’s raise themselves or which they secure from a local abattoir.
If you want a Jacob sheepskin, one of the world’s oldest breeds, prized for its light, soft, springy fleece you’ll have to move fast as these coveted items fly off the virtual shelf.
Welsh Organic Tannery was born out of Emma Allum’s frustration at not finding anywhere locally to process the skins left over from the small-scale farming that allows her family to live a self-sustainable life. How, she wondered, could it ever be right to simply dispose of her prized stock’s skins in landfill or to incinerate them?
Determined to find a solution, she finally found a tannery in Hereford, one of only a couple in England willing to take on the job. Not only that, the owner Nicki Port offered to teach Emma and Steve the process of tanning. From that point on they decided to make a go of it. The process isn’t for the faint-hearted; from taking the initial plunge to a fully operational tannery took around three years, time spent dealing with red tape and the actual building and sourcing of the constituent parts of a tannery, most of which are no longer made in the UK!
Having spent several weeks practising on skins donated by neighbours, Emma and Steve were confident they could tan skins to a high level. They were determined that no chemical products should be used in the tanning process or result in harmful waste, in keeping with their self-sufficient, sustainable lifestyle. They use vegetable tanning (sustainably sourced tree bark) to treat the skins, as part of a four-to-six-week process that involves only water, salt (for pickling the skin) and formic acid, a naturally occurring substance.
Photo by Heather Birnie Photography
The result is a skin that preserves the softness and strength of the original fleece and enhances its natural colour and markings. The slow, natural process gives rise to a thick, high quality, long lasting product, and best of all, because the fleece is washed several times during the tanning process, it’s fully washable!
Today, Welsh Organic mainly tans local fleeces that are delivered in person but equally have many skins sent to it from all over England and Scotland. It also tans for other small holders who want to sell finished sheepskin and goatskin products from their own farm shops or on sites such as Etsy or simply to keep for themselves. Emma and Steve Allum’s dedication to preserving an ancient tanning process means that a precious animal by-product is preserved as an object of beauty rather than ending up as waste.