By Jessica Aiers, Business Development Manager, UKLF
After noting that leather designer Bill Amberg selected MacGregor & Michael to showcase their work at London Craft Week in May 2017, I visited the pair in early December to find out more about their work, their insight into the British leather industry and exactly how they developed their international reputation as fine leather artisans.
From high in their workshop home looking towards the Tetbury Avon river, Neil MacGregor and Valerie Michael have spent over four decades learning, designing, creating and teaching others how to handcraft luxury leather goods.
On arrival I commented on the quaint charm of Tetbury and Neil joked that the Industrial Revolution had bypassed the town. Perhaps this is one of the attributes that drew them to this untouched part of the Cotswolds, as the use of machinery does not feature in the MacGregor & Michael ethos, easily seen by a glance around their fascinating tool-filled workshop. The main reason however, is their evident knowledge about and love of the material; leather's unique qualities and the endless design possibilities offered by problem-solving, innovating and practising new skills.
I could quickly see why their training courses fill up swiftly as they patiently clarified the concept of hand-boarding calfskin to me, following my enquiry of the origin of the term "box calf", previous sources being unsatisfactory. The passion they share for working with leather was evident as they explained that the quality of leather is fundamental and why the material is still so relevant for todays' environmentally-conscious consumers.
At the end of the 1960's Neil and Valerie were working as an apprentice electrician and civil servant, but wished to be "makers" and self-employed. Initially interested in colour and decoration, Valerie experimented with different textile materials before discovering leather, first creating simple leather garments and then bags. The level of skill further progressed with help of the 1905 book Artistic Leather Work by E. Ellen Carter, and trips to Connolly Brothers Warehouse in London was combined with key skills of the trade learnt from the saddlery, book binding and shoe-making professions. MacGregor & Michael also cite easy access to the huge range of artefacts in the National Leather Collection (known at that time as the Museum of Leathercraft) as being invaluable in their journey to becoming master craftspeople.
In 1984 MacGregor & Michael had amassed a network of like-minded leather artisans and approached Bath Council to put on an international conference; with representation from trades such as bookbinders, harness-makers, jewellers, shoe designers, tanneries and leather suppliers. The Association of Designer Leatherworkers was born and ran for six years, until increasingly busy schedules and a serious car crash put paid to serious amounts of travel. The pair also assessed work at the Cordwainers College before it merged with the London College of Fashion, and in recent years they have seen an increase in the number of fashion students wishing to develop their hands-on experience of working with leather, rather than the more abstract nature of learning pure design.
Known for their use of moulded leather and distinctive traditional stitching, Neil and Valerie are keen to stress that they made many mistakes along the way and they also provided me with a very helpful potted history of the UK leather industry and how it changed since the post-war years with the advent of high purchase tax and business competition in the 1980's. When asked what they consider to be of key relevance for todays leather industry, they replied with the question of what "handmade" really means in the context of mass market production, and also how to address the reliable sourcing and supply of small batches of quality leather for crafts businesses in the UK.
After a couple of very interesting hours, admiring exceptional leather goods and drinking a lot of very nice tea, I can see exactly how MacGregor & Michael have gained their reputation as international authorities on leather work. They are testament to how true leather artisanry is possible with innovative design and the use of traditional skills, learnt with plenty of trial and error and help from other trades.
When I asked how they knew what to do without formal qualifications in the subject, they simply said "we just asked people". With involvement with leather industry figures such as Bill Amberg, QEST and the National Leather Collection, long may that continue.