Located in the countryside about an hour's drive from Uppsala in eastern Sweden, the craftsmen of Tärnsjö Garveri have been tanning locally sourced bovine leather since 1873. They specialise in vegetable tanned full grain leather and supply not only some of the best shoemakers, but also make equestrian equipment as well as their own line of briefcases and other leather accessories. We sat down with Axel Bodén, owner and CEO of one of the very few traditional tanneries left in Northern Europe.
Axel Bodén taking us through the process of tanning Tärnsjö's leathers
Please tell us a bit about yourself and your company.
I am 36 years old and the fifth generation of tannery owners in the family. I have been working with this company for 15 years. My father bought this company in 1993 together with Torbjörn Lundin. When he passed away, I was thinking carefully about what to do with the business. I was really curious. I really liked the product and I wanted to see how we could progress while keeping the tradition alive. Seeing the transformation of bringing the natural raw hide into a beautiful finished leather is what keeps me going every day.
We are a full veg tannery, one of three left in Sweden. We are making leather out of bovine hides, using only Swedish raw materials. We are focusing on sustainable ways to produce leather, so we are buying raw materials mainly from the surroundings of the factory. We are sourcing the hides locally and then we are doing the whole process here in the tannery. We take care of the whole production.
Outside view of the tannery building
When this company started in 1873, the business was mainly to produce harnesses, so we took raw hides from local farmers, tanned the leather, made harness products and sold them back to the farmers. Since then we have developed into producing vegetable tanned leather in different thicknesses and for many different types of products.
Some of your clients are makers of classic men’s shoes. Could you name a few?
Mallorca-based Carmina is one of them, we have supplied leathers for a few collaborations with Skoaktiebolaget, and we have been selling to some of the most well-known English brands as well. Today we are also selling a lot to some Japanese brands, Visvim is one of them. We are working with traditional shoemakers as well as with other types of shoes. We are selling drum stuffed sides for shoes, split suede and so on. We are selling a lot of lining leather as well.
What makes a shoemaker choose Tärnsjö over all the bigger tanneries in Europe?
It depends. They have different needs, but if they are looking for something very traditional, natural and old fashioned, then they come to us. It’s a small scale operation and we don’t always use the most modern technology. We want to keep it traditional, and customers who like that come to us.
Our philosophy is to keep it as pure and natural as possible. Some tanneries make so called corrected grain leathers by sanding and putting a lot of paint on the hides, and pressing or printing them. That makes it easy to achieve a perfect look. But if you see a few small marks or scars on the leather, it is just proof that it actually came from an animal. We believe that natural full grain leather makes for the best final product.
Some of the manufacturers really like how our leather is produced, while others want a surface that is very nice and smooth regardless of how it’s done. It depends on what kind of product they are producing. It’s like baking a cake. We are baking our cake this way and others will do it in their ways, and what you put into it determines the end result.
The meat-eating habits are changing in Europe. How is that affecting your business?
Tanneries’ work is closely dependent on the meat-eating and milk-drinking habits. It varies with cows and bulls depending on the pieces that are being used. For example, some countries eat a lot of calf and some don’t, and that affects the raw materials in different ways.
Calf leathers still wet after tumbling
When there’s a financial crisis, the first industry that goes down is the car industry, and then usually the leather prices drop right after. That is not an effect of eating meat of course, but more about the supply of raw materials. A lot of things can happen with such a product.
You can also observe changes caused by the way we are producing food nowadays, especially meat or milk. For example, we want the cows to produce more milk and that is reflected in the general quality of the hides. You can see that the animals have been given more food to be able to grow quicker than before. The hide is just a by-product of the industry, so these kinds of things cause changes to the raw materials that we use.
In the past few years, quite a few tanneries have been purchased by big fashion companies. How has that affected the market?
I think that it will be a problem for the market and for nice leather tanneries. I think tanneries need to be run by entrepreneurs who can see the whole picture. When various big brands come and buy those tanneries, the outcome of the leather that they don’t want to use for their own products is affected.
Being a tannery, you need to have customers that buy your really good selections and customers that buy your lower grade selections, that are also good for certain uses. If you don’t find these customers, then you are out of business very quickly. So it will be a struggle for some companies that don’t have the proper structure to keep these great traditional tanneries alive.
Regarding tanneries in Central and Northern Europe, we have seen most of them move to Southeast Asia and nowadays also to North Africa. So the bulk production is always moving towards where the labour cost is low and the environmental laws not so strict. The traditional, experienced tanneries that really fill a special niche have a better chance of surviving by continuing to produce this kind of high quality product.
I’m quite young, but passing the tannery on to the next generation is very difficult. It’s a really nice business but it’s very hard work and you need to have good timing and a good setup with your employees and so on. It’s not easy to maintain the highest quality, because you need to keep the company’s whole knowledge intact all the time. It’s also tough work for our craftsmen, and when a country gets more developed and educated it often gets difficult to find great employees to work in these businesses. This is one of the struggles for tanneries in Europe nowadays.