Bridle Hide leather has been around for more than 200 years and is rightly considered a British institution, held in the same breath as Rolls Royce, Wimbledon and Old School ties. The beautiful, hard-wearing leather has been produced by tanners and manufacturers for everything from horse saddles in the war efforts of the British Empire to striking wallets made by the leading British brands.
The central hub of British Bridle hide leather making has always been Walsall in the heart of England. The ‘bridlecutters’ of the early 19th century were considered the pioneers of the town’s leather goods trade. Working out of small workshops, often in a yard behind the house, these men (and women) were soon doing a roaring trade in Bridle leather as horses became an essential part of Victorian economicand social life.
The building of the South Staffordshire Railway through Walsall in 1847 gave a further boost to the trade and by 1851 there were 75 firms of all sizes making bridles, saddles and harnesses. Towards the end of the century, the industry reached itsGolden Age with more than 6,000 people producing great quality bridle leather, including for tens of thousands of horse saddles used in the Boer Wars.
What made Bridle leather stand out from other leathers, and still does to this day, is the infusion of natural greases, tallows and waxes into the cowhide to give it a hard-wearing, flexible and water-resistant surface, perfect for horse saddles, which have to withstand all weather conditions, including rain.
The skin has also traditionally been steeped in vegetable tanning materials, particularly oak bark in England. This was done for anything up to two years in the 19th century, but now the process is a lot quicker thanks to the addition of mineral salts.
Sadly, the bridle leather industry in the UK steadily declined in the 20th century as the traditional roles of the horse were supplanted by the internal combustion engine in its many forms, including most prominently the motor car.
Some companies tried to adapt by turning to the production of bicycle saddles, upholstery and fancy leatherwork for the cars. But it was the transition in the 1920s and 30s to using bridle leather to make smaller, light goods like wallets, purses and travel items that proved the biggest game changer.
Hugely respected names that are still running today like Ettinger and Daines & Hathaway were formed in this period, producing hand-crafted goods made from bridle and other leathers. The industry was flourishing once more.
Wallets, cases, bags, belts and jewellery boxes made from bridle leather became hugely popular because they were well made, water-resistant, and over time acquire a unique patina as they take in natural oils and are polished by repeated handling.
But sadly again the boom wasn’t to last. Competition from Europe and then the Far East began emerging from the 1950s onwards, putting many of the leather goods manufacturers and tanners in the lower to middle range of the market out of business. “They simply couldn’t compete with the cheaper leather being produced abroad,” explains Robert Ettinger, CEO of Ettinger London. “Those of us who were at the top end managed to continue creating leather goods in this country because we’re not so determined by the price. We are now appreciated and admired for the quality of our British made products.”
Several Walsall based leather goods companies went bust, and there are now believed to be just 30 salaried leather companies left and only six on the small leather goods side. But the quality of their bridle hide leather remains of the same high standard and goods produced in England are loved by people from all over the world, particularly the US and Asia.