9 February 2022

La Tannerie Charles F. Stead

There are very few tanneries in the UK, down from 300 to about 30 today. One of the oldest is the family-owned Charles F. Stead tannery in Leeds, which has been producing velvet calf (see article) and smooth leather of the highest quality since the 1890s. Unbeknownst to most of us, Charles F. Stead hides have been used for some of the most iconic shoes on the market (including Clarks' famous Desert Boots). In this article, we will present the history of this historic company.

Charles, an excellent apprentice

Charles F. Stead learned his trade as an apprentice with Thomas Wright & Co. Ltd in the 1890s. His good customer relations and product knowledge helped him to excel as a salesman. After gaining a lot of experience in the trade, Charles decided to set up his own business, in a small premises in St. Anne's Street, near Leeds city centre, UK.

The beginning of production

With business booming, he took over the Sheepscar tannery. Some of the present buildings date from 1823. The Meanwood Valley in which Sheepscar was located had many tanneries, all of which depended on the fresh water of Meanwood Beck.

The original leathers, produced from 1904 onwards by Charles F. Stead, were from domestic sheep skins for book bindings, chamois and "fancy" leathers (the term "fancy" referred to leathers for wallets, purses, bags etc.).

The arrival of the steam engine

In the 1910s, as demand increased, a new steam engine was needed to turn the large wooden drums used in the "Chrome" tanning process (article to follow). Subsequently, the electric generator was revolutionary and produced enough power for the machines as well as for lighting.

The birth of a love affair

The 1920s saw the birth of the British love affair with suede shoes (see article). It began with a member of the royal family, Edward, Duke of Windsor, "the best dressed man of the 1920s", who caused a sensation by wearing his brown suede shoes with his dark blue suit.

Despite the growth of the leather industry, the 1920s were also marked by an unfortunate tragedy: Charles F. Stead was involved in a car accident and unfortunately died. This forced his second son, Phillip K. Stead, aged 22, to take control of the company. He began to gradually (and significantly!) change the methods used for drying and tanning deerskin (see article) and calfskin.

Leather enters the fashion world

The 1930s saw the introduction of the leather 'Perfecto' jacket and with it the famous 'bad boy biker' image that burst onto the fashion scene. This image gained fame through brands like Harley Davidson and was later immortalised in the glamour of Hollywood's golden age. Leather was no longer just a durable material, but a fashion statement in its own right.

Stead's velvet calf

Stead Tannery sources its raw materials from the UK, Northern Europe, New Zealand, South Africa (Kudu) and Argentina. As a rule, Stead's suede calf leathers shrink by 15-30% of their original size during production (i.e. some skin surface is lost). On the face of it, this is commercial suicide and is the opposite of the thinking of most velvet tanneries, which seek to gain as much surface area as possible at every stage. However, it is this particular fibre structure that has been the basis of their reputation since they specialised in the velvet calf 60 years ago. This tighter fibre structure compared to other suedes is responsible for the unique appearance and improved wear properties of their leathers. We source some of our suede calf models from them. Also to be discovered: the suede calf from the Italian tannery Sciarada (article to come).

Q&A with Mr. Andrew Bailey, Sales Director of the Stead Tannery

Who are you?

Charles F Stead (or “Steads”) is an English tannery best known for being the producer of the highest quality suedes in the world, such as our Janus Calf, Repello and Super Buck suedes. Steads have been producing leathers on the same site in Leeds, England since 1904.

What makes your suede so special?

To produce the best quality product, requires the best of everything: the best hides, the best oils, the best dyes and finishes – then the patience and skill to do what is required to produce the very best leathers possible. This requires constant care and attention. In terms of our suedes, what sets them apart is the tight fibre structure of the suede, the rich dyings and the physical performance – more on which below:

  • Selection and Quality control: our customers expect and demand the best of us, so every stage in our production cycle is geared towards achieving consistently high quality. Most of our raw material is selected and evaluated at several stages during the conversion process. Our objectives are always the same, that is to check that the specification and quality have been achieved up to that point and to sort for best use.

  • Raw Material: we purchase raw material from the UK, Northern Europe, South Africa (Kudu) and Argentina. The most important aspect to our buying policy is the establishment of long term supplier relationships. These enable us to provide reliability and consistency and ensure we are purchasing the best available raw material for the product in question, that meets our own high technical specifications.

  • Fibre Structure: in general terms, our suedes SHRINK by between 15% and 30% of the original size during production (i.e. we lose area which is the basis on which leathers are sold). On the face of it this is business suicide and the opposite to the way most suede tanners think, which is to look for maximum area gain at every stage. However, it is this “drawing together” of the fibre structure that has been the basis of our reputation since we started to specialise in suede 60 years ago. This tighter fibre structure to the suede is responsible for the unique appearance and enhanced wear properties of our suedes.

  • Colour: our dyings are all pure aniline, using the finest quality dye-stuffs and without any synthetic pigment to augment depth of colour or levelness of colour. As such, unlike other tanners, we cannot rely on finishing procedures and must ensure that the original drum dying is as solid and accurate as possible. For this reason we have invested significantly in a state of the art automated dye house which helps ensure the rich, full natural aniline dyings for which our suedes are known.

What are your initiatives regarding the environment (water, product waste…)?

Charles F Stead is a long time member of the Leather Working Group and are constantly striving to produce our leathers in accordance with the highest possible environmental standards, with year-on-year reductions in water usage. Whilst we continue to modernise as required for a modern business, we also feel it is important to retain the traditional skills and techniques developed over centuries that are at the heart of fine leather making. For us, sustainability is not a fad  - it is about producing the highest quality leathers, that go into the highest quality products that will last customers for many years. Ultimately, there is no more sustainable shoe than a good-year welted construction in high grade natural materials, then can be worn (and repaired) for decades. This is infinitely more sustainable than an “eco” shoe made from recycled bottle caps (for example) that is still made from fossil-fuel derived plastics and is typically thrown away after 12 months.

Where do you buy your raw materials from?

We purchase raw material from the UK, Northern Europe, South Africa (Kudu) and Argentina. In each case we rely on long-standing supplier relationships to “cherry-pick” the best raw material for the particular article in question.

How long does it take to go from raw skin to a suede leather? How many craftsmen are involved in this process?

For most of our articles, the process can be achieved in about 2 months. During this time the material will pass round the tannery 2 or 3 times, and be handled at some stage in the process by most of out 50+ tannery employees.

How do you recommend taking care of your leather?

The Repello suede has natural repellency built into the tanning of the suede, meaning that it is easy to look after and can handle most conditions! Some further advice below.. Remove any dirt when dry and brush up nap using a stiff bristle suede brush. Perform quick, light strokes so the bristles get deep into the fibers removing dirt/scum or dust. Don’t press too much except if you’re dealing with stubborn marks. Always brush the nap of the suede in one direction. For suede with a longer nap, it's better to use a multi-headed brush or crepe brush for extra softness. Alternatively, a suede eraser can be used to remove dirt smudges or stains, with which greater pressure can safely be applied. If the nap of your item looks tired and flattened all over, hold it above a gentle steam source for a few seconds and then proceed to brush. If the suede does get too wet, leave the shoes overnight in a dry, well-ventilated area. Once dry (or while they’re drying) go over the shoes lightly with a suede brush. Note: Don’t put a suede item next to a heater or through a dryer.

Discover our suede selection

Discover a selection of our suede calf models.

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