Just what was it that caught the eye of Dame Judi Dench?
'If someone says 'Can you do me a pink leather bag with sequins on it?' I have to say that's not really what my strengths are' ? Mark Papworth of White Buffalo Crafts
The Papworths have lived in East Anglia for just a few years, after sensibly leaving south-east London, but they've already embedded themselves in village life… if the local pooches are a barometer. 'There's a whole lot of dogs around here sporting little leather collars,' laughs Stephanie. She and husband Mark run a traditional leatherworking operation; canine accessories just one of the things they can make.
White Buffalo Crafts is a cottage industry that started, really, around the time Mark was thinking of retiring from the railways.
He'd joined as a management trainee in the days of British Rail, and was on the commercial side – freight, mainly, before working for Railtrack, then Network Rail, and finishing with the huge Thameslink upgrade programme. Mark's role was running the team that got planning consent. By 2006 he was pretty much burned out, workwise: aged 55 and not much fancying plugging away to 65.
Fortunately, he could count on a decent pension. 'But I knew I wasn't going to be able to cope with retirement in the sense of sitting in front of the fire with my slippers on, smoking my proverbial pipe and watching the television. That wasn't the kind of person I was.' He'd also been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, so needed something for both mind and body. Moving up a gear with his leatherworking was perfect.
Mark had been keen for as long as he could remember – even from his days as a Scout. Self-taught, he later made balls and bags for his children, and items as presents.
The turning point came in 2003, when he heard about a woman and her partner teaching traditional English leatherworking in Gloucestershire: Val Michael and Neil MacGregor. 'I went on some of Val's courses and it was kind of a revelation. All the things I'd worked out for myself beforehand, she was able to put me right – and I needed a lot of putting right!'
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This isn't about mass-production but the making of individual goods – using traditional tools and natural materials, not electric sewing-machines.
'If you went back 150 years and plucked out a harnessmaker, a cobbler, a saddler, even a bookbinder – people in the leatherworking trade – and asked them what sort of tools they used, what sort of materials, what sort of skills, then those are the materials and tools and skills I employ today.'
It's a world away from iPhones, that's for sure. Mark's in his kitchen, making a notebook holder while also answering my naïve questions. He's marked the surface of the leather with a 120-year-old pricking iron and used an awl (a spike that's 'the leatherworker's greatest friend') to make the holes.
The needles are actually blunt, and slide through the holes. The thread is immensely-strong linen, made from the fibres of the plant flax (another natural material).
Mark's wooden stool, elegant in its simplicity, was made by friend and craftsman Paul. Paul also made the stitching clam supported between Mark's knees and securing the notebook holder as he works. The clam is made of two arms of curved beech plywood, creating its own sprung pressure to hold an object in its grip,
Mark burnishes the edges of the leather with a mixture of water and gum arabic (a natural adhesive from the acacia tree) which seals and smoothes. 'The aesthetics and the finish are really quite important – to me, anyway.'
The couple attend about eight or 10 country shows each year. Mark is maker-in-chief, Stephie an adept saleswoman good at chatting and assuring visitors that, yes, it is all handstitching.
'His is going to come out better than mine every time,' she smiles, adding it's important to demonstrate the skills to the public – and talk about materials and techniques – if you're committed to keeping a traditional craft alive.
'Most people are interested. The odd one's glazed over!'
Actress Judi Dench was a famous customer at a country show in Surrey. 'She had a lovely sense of humour,' says Stephie.
Mark says it's vital to 'share what we think is an important part of the heritage of our country.
'Also, there's an honest simplicity of design. Traditional English leatherwork isn't flash. It's about functional designs whose appeal is in its simplicity, not in garish additions.
'If someone comes to me and says 'Can you do me a pink leather bag with sequins on it?' I have to say to them that's not really what my strengths are. I'm trying to make bags that are timeless in their appeal.'
It would be hard, Mark admits, to make a living from leatherworking.
Vegetable-tanned leather (created using natural substances) costs about £8 per square foot. A decent-sized bag uses four or five square feet, and takes him 20 hours. Materials cost about £50, and a share of other costs doubles that. It might sell for £130, so he'd make about £30 for his 20 hours of labour.
Other items made include wallets and purses, bowls, boxes, belts, bookends, chair renovations. Often, they're asked to make things to a customer's specification.
Mark, based between Bury St Edmunds and Diss, also runs training courses. He uses leather made from skins that are a by-product of the meat industry; not from animals raised primarily for their skins.
Some people think the name White Buffalo Crafts means it's buffalo hide. It's not!
www.whitebuffalocrafts.com and 07941 616684