A visit to the C.F. Stead tannery in the UK

Charles Frederick Stead bought the Sheepscar Tannery in 1904. Until that year the tannery produced leather and tallow. At the time, the Meanwood valley, on the northern outskirts of Leeds, was full of tanneries, which took advantage of the waters of Meanwood Beck. C.F. Stead began to operate as a producer of small leather goods, like wallets, handbags and book covers. In the 1920s, the British public fell in love with suede shoes, made in a type of leather that was treated on the flesh side to acquire a velvety look. It was a discovery and a runaway romance, embodied by the then Duke of Windsor, who popularised this type of shoes. C.F. Stead has lived through changing fashions, two world wars and globalisation, and now employs 75 people. In 2023, it generated a revenue of €14 million. “It was a good year,” according to Andrew Bailey, the company’s head of sales, who added that the tannery’s main markets are Europe, the USA and Japan.

Visiting C.F. Stead feels like travelling back in time. There is plenty of machinery, but manual labour remains a feature, and it is often hard work. It takes approximately 28 days and 15 production stages to manufacture suede, the hides making the round of the tannery several times in the process.

C. F. Stead stocks the hides awaiting treatment in the tannery courtyard. They mostly come from cattle-rearing countries like Argentina and New Zealand. When the hides arrive at the tannery, they have already been pre-treated to ensure their preservation, either with a mineral process (mostly using chrome), in which case they are light blue in colour, or with a plant-based process, in which case they take on a whitish hue. They will need to undergo several more weeks of processing before turning into the suede C.F. Stead is famous for.

A visit to the C.F. Stead tannery in the UK

Know-how and technique

Raw leather needs first of all to be re-hydrated after its long journey. Workers immerse the heavy hides in vats of water to clean them, before adding a product to combat mildew. They are then de-hydrated, still retaining a degree of humidity, measured, and sorted depending on their thickness. Next comes the flattening stage: an expert technician takes care to smooth the raw leather as well as possible before putting it through a machine resembling a steam roller. The next step is planing the leather to obtain a uniform material.In a large area nearby, work proceeds to the rhythmic din made by huge drums. The latter, which come in different capacities, from 400 kg to 1,400 kg, is where leather is dyed. The operation can last from a few hours to several days, depending on the material’s nature and colour. 

Dyed leather is dried and flattened in a machine that works like an iron on a conveyor belt, and any residual humidity is then eliminated by hanging up the ironed sheets. Subsequently, a worker stretches the leather using small hooks, before it is finally put through a huge drier.It is worth noting that, once the process is over, suede shrinks and loses between 15% and 30% of its initial surface. A new hydration stage is then necessary, this time using oil and wax. Finally, tanned leather is flattened and polished, and sometimes it goes through an extra step to tweak its colour. This final stage is supervised by a technician using a light-based machine that identifies differences in hues and adjusts the colour.  C.F. Stead is a supplier to many fashion labels, mostly premium ones. In the shipping area, rolls of leather are stacked on shelves that nearly reach the ceiling, each roll inscribed with the names of clients like Clarks, Tod’s, Lacoste, John Lobb and Burberry. Some brand collaborations bring C.F. Stead’s name under the spotlight, like the one with Timberland, as labels are increasingly keen to showcase the work they do with local and artisanal suppliers.  

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