A short time ago, I found myself back home in Scotland. Now, as much as I love Scotland, it is not high on my list of places to be in November. If I leave Berlin at this time of year it is for high temperatures and white sandy beaches.
Scotland does however have a lot to offer, even in November.
Stunning landscapes, rather adventurous culinary experiences (the Haggis has nothing on the Deep Fried Mars Bar), and the people are warm, even if the weather is not.
Scotland is also home to something else quite special: Alexander Leathers. I jumped at the chance to visit their factory.
The factory is located in a small town in the Scottish Borders called Selkirk. Traditionally Selkirk was famous for its now closed woolen industry and you find a lot of unused 18th century industrial buildings. It is in one of these buildings that Alexander Leathers has set up shop. Newly renovated and kitted out specifically for making their leather goods, their way.
Made – not manufactured
As soon as I walk in I’m warmly greeted by Steve, managing director at Alexander Leathers. Instantly you feel that things are happening here, things are being made not manufactured.
We walked past the newly delivered boxes of Horween leather; past an incredible array of jackets, past even more hides on a rack to where Will is busy marking up a pattern.
Will is the production manager at Alexander Leathers and you can see he is still fully engaged with the product.
A passion for their work
The knowledge and enthusiasm for the leather, for the jackets, and for the history just shines through from every member of the Alexander team as we ask them to take us through the process of how a jacket is produced.
The process of making an Alexander Leather jacket is surprisingly simple; however, the skills involved take years to master.
As Steve explains:
“When we get an order in it goes to Will. We create our own patterns right here by hand, not by computer. Every order these days has a custom element to it and will need tweaks here and there – Will sorts that out. Once that process is complete we hand it over to Johnny, our cutter, and the leather will be hand cut to the pattern. It will then be allocated to one of our specialist machinists. One machinist handles everything. Beginning to end”
To make up one of these jackets requires a tremendous amount of skill and expertise attained over many years of making these jackets.
“In six months to a year you could make up a simple jacket. Nothing too complicated. In two years you’d have acquired the skills needed to be getting on with things, perhaps a GT or Montana.
We have people specializing in the various leathers and styles. The B3 sheepskin for example would be given to Julie. She has to be the best in the country for producing sheepskins, always great feedback on her work, as do all the girls.”
As we chat to the team the experience between them is pretty impressive.
“Vicky has been working with leather for over 25 years, same with Janet same with Edith. Joanne has been working with leather for 20 years. We’ve folks from Barbour and folks who used to work in the local tannery (now closed) here in Selkirk. We’ve been lucky with the people working for us, it’s made things easier having the expertise available locally it really has.”
Even managing director Steve used to work with Will and many of the Alexander team on the factory floor many years ago. He is a fully trained up machinist and shows us the first jacket he has made in a long time, the first Horween Bison to be made. It’s flawless. It shows how well these people are trained up.
The Right Leather
Over on the leather racks there are dozens of hides. You will find something to fit every possible taste and use. If it is historical accuracy you are looking for Alexander has the knowledge to get you exactly what they wore back in the day.
It is not only the leather that they pay historical homage to, all the hardware is as close as it is possible to get.
“We sourced these Japanese Talon Zippers. They are made exactly the same way as the originals, stamped on the back with a triple mark and a turn up on the bottom. Exactly the same as the original World War Two ones, perfect for the customer looking for authenticity.”
As you walk towards the back of the factory you see the entire range of Alexander Leathers jackets. Dozens of them in various leathers. For being in business for less than a year they have been busy, very busy.
Next to the Alexander jackets are some genuine vintage leather jackets. These are directly from Nigel Cabourn’s extensive vintage collection and are for the upcoming 2014 collaboration. Alexander Leathers have already become the go-to guys when the big players need expert advice.
As the tour of the factory space come to an end I get a tour of one of the jackets. An Alexander Leathers Half Belt in Horween Bison, the one Steve had just finished.
This model is based on jackets from the 30s with a simple silhouette, two hand warmer pockets, and one chest pocket on the outside. Inside you find a chest pocket and a rich tartan wool lining setting off the black Bison hide beautifully.
Steve explains that you can get all manner of linings – even your family Tartan if you have one.
As I mentioned Alexander have a vast array of leathers to choose from, and they will help you find just the right leather and lining for you and your needs. Special request such as accommodation for motorcycle armor and extra pockets are also possible. For anything else you can dream up they will at the very least discuss the possibilities.
“I was asked to cost up a python skin jacket the other day.”
As impressed as I was with the factory, the way in which the jackets are made, the knowledge of materials and history as well as the attention to detail, each and every detail.
What impressed me the most was the sheer enjoyment they get making jackets for their customers.
“Every jacket we create for a customer has to be of the highest quality, our reputation depends on it. We like everybody to be extremely happy with their chosen jacket and specification; after all, it’s a lifetime companion.
Sometimes a customer may give us incorrect measurements, it happens, but if it can be altered then we will alter it. If it is a standard jacket with no custom additions we will take it back or exchange it for one that the customer is happy with.”
They love what they do and this, as much as anything else defines the product.
I would like to personally thank Steve and all the staff at Alexander Leathers for taking the time to show us round.
If you find yourself in Selkirk I would encourage you to drop by, they are always happy to put the coffee on and show you round. If that is a little too far afield, head over to the Alexander Leather website to see the full range of jackets as well as a wealth of other fascinating information.All images courtesy of John Wilson.