Having originally trained as an artist, Devon Leather designer/ maker Liz Pannell has been taught traditional hand-stitching techniques by a retired harness maker, and through leather work brings together her passions for functional design, heritage and sustainability.

The Maker

Harking back to a time when goods were only made of the natural materials to hand, here at Devon Leather we aim to produce bags, belts and leathergoods from the best natural materials, sourced in the UK, and made completely by hand using traditional saddlers’ and harness-makers’  techniques, and mostly vintage tools.

Made to last, and with a nod to work bags of times gone by and traditional horse harness, each with a classic  simple sturdy design, each item is carefully  handcrafted in our workshop in East Devon, on the site of Britain’s last traditional Oak Bark tannery.

Maintaining a quality often missing in industrialised processing, every product is handmade from start to finish. Each bag, belt and accessory  will develop in colour and patina, through use and exposure to UV light, and this is a normal feature of natural vegetable and oak bark tanned leather. The natural, undyed full grain Oak Bark leather that we love to use in particular will collect evidence being touched and being used, including oils from hands and water marks, and develop it’s own character, with each piece becoming an archive of it’s life and useage, and truly unique to the user. This is slow leather.

Properly cared for, we expect each item to last a lifetime, and even potentially to become heritage pieces for the next generation. Items are often made of only 4 materials, the natural leather, cast metal fittings where possible sourced from a UK foundry, and natural linen thread, waxed with beeswax from local hives. And eventually, at the end of each item’s  life, we hope that the metal components would hopefully be reused or recycled and the rest will be composted, going a full natural cycle, with the natural vegetable tannins, linen thread, natural oils and waxes, and leather, all returned to the earth.

Having originally trained as an artist, Devon Leather designer/ maker Liz Pannell has been taught traditional hand-stitching techniques by a retired harness maker, and through leather work brings together her passions for functional design, heritage and sustainability.

‘I am often asked why hand-stitching is important and why I am so passionate about such a labour-intensive job. Apart from the importance of keeping heritage skills alive, hand-stitching is a practical choice as it produces a stronger, ‘locked’ stitch that unlike machine stitching is unlikely to unravel if damaged. Each stitch is produced by two needles passing through from either side of the leather, through a hole made by a sharp diamond-shaped awl. Each hole is made one at a time for each stitch, so that each stitch is placed with care and attention to detail, working closely observing how the item is coming together, and making minute adjustments to ensure the optimum results.

‘So many everyday items  used to be made of leather, and given the durability and potential for repair, biodegradability, and sustainability of traditionally veg and oak bark tanned , leather to my mind has to be a much better option than plastics and way more intrinsically beautiful- a feast for the senses!’

The Leather

We aim to source our leather carefully, and we enjoy using, where we can, leather made on site from what is the only remaining traditional oak bark tannery in Britain, which produces some of the finest pit tanned leather in the world.

Used by the best bespoke boot and shoemakers in the world for soling and insoling, for harness and luggage, oak bark leather has been produced on this same site it is thought since the Roman times and has been in the current owners’ family since 1862, through five generations of tanners, each passing on the secrets of their alchemy to the next generation.

Oak bark tannage is a slow process that protects the natural fibres of the hide unlike modern and chemical tanning methods, taking about 14 months from start to finish. Only the best local hides of beef cattle are used, arriving raw, hair-on and salted to preserve them until processing. The hides are soaked in pits of lime to aid de-hairing, divided into the different ‘cuts’ and then suspended in pits containing a tea or ‘liquor’ made of ground oak bark sourced from coppiced oak from Cumbria and Wales, and water from the river Coly that flows leisurely, winding it’s way through the river fields, past the tannery door. The oak bark is ground using power directly from the turning of a water wheel, and the pits are gently agitated using this natural source of power to ensure even tanning of the hides. At the end of the cycle, the inert spent oak bark tea is returned back into the river. Finally the hides are hand stained and dressed with a special blend of natural oils and greases, and with the full grain leather, i.e.  leather which has the very top layer or ‘grain’ retained, this process brings out the unique pattern, and all the scars and growth marks of natural leather. This is leather as authentic as it is possible to get- real leather, made sustainably and made to last.

The Workshop

With the river running past and the mill stream joining it just outside the workshop door, we are fortunate to be at the heart of the tannery in Colyton.  The gentle background rumble of the waterwheel is a constant steady reminder of the past and the lives of others spent working on this site for hundreds of years.

Based in what was once a retail shop, we now use the ample space to make bags, belts and small accessories, all by hand using vintage tools, often gleaned from carboot sales and markets.

It is no longer a shop, but we are often open to visitors if not working up to a deadline. Please check that we are there before making a special journey, as we may be away from the workshop on occasion, visiting stockists or having gone up the road to the post office!


Devon Leather
King Street
EX24 6PD

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0117 230 8622

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