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SARA GRADY - HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT


British Pasture Leather, co-founded by Sara Grady and Alice Robinson, is the first supplier of leather that is traceable to regenerative farms in Britain, redefining leather by linking its production directly to practices that improve the welfare of animals, ecosystems, and communities.


Photo credit: Jason Lowe

Cattle seem to love the camera. I stand still in the pasture, pointing my lens, and here they come, ready for their close-up. Gently gathering and huddling, first curious, then nonchalant, they accept my presence and quietly carry on. The initial approach is made with a curious sideways look, which soon turns into a nuzzle, then a sidling that becomes an insistent close lean, until I’m part of the herd and ignored altogether. I can touch their warmth, smell their sweetness, hear their hooves, feel their breath, and look closely at their hides.

On this day, I’m particularly interested in the folds of skin at the neck, showing the work this beast has done: lowering its heavy head to the grass, lifting it to look about while inching forward, only to lower again, a constant refrain of grazing, scanning, stepping, chewing. I notice one neck in particular, with pronounced wrinkles that suggest years of nosing about in pasture. Evidence of a life spent ambling and grazing. The lines seem to echo the contours of the hilly vistas surrounding us. I’m interested in these marks because I’m anticipating how they will appear, and remain, in the leather to be made from this animal’s hide.



Photo credit: Jason Lowe 1 &3, Sara Grady 2


The shape of a leather hide has become very familiar to me: a sort of Rorschach, the centre of which is the animal’s back section (it will produce the highest quality leather), and around its edges, the skin of belly, legs, and shoulder. The shoulder and neck section will be thicker and more wrinkled, especially in pasture-fed animals which spend their lives nodding and grazing. The belly area will have looser structure, the result of doing what bellies are meant to do: stretch.

That leather hide shape is one I’ve come to know well because I am a co-founder of British Pasture Leather, with designer Alice Robinson. We are the first suppliers of leather that is traceable to regenerative farms in Britain.

This June, at the annual Groundswell gathering of Britain’s regenerative farming community, we hosted a panel on the topic of leather made from the hides of pasture-fed cattle. A question came from the audience: is this leather of a higher quality? If you are judging that by its material character, the answer, in my opinion, is yes. Because this animal grew naturally and slowly, eating pasture as it was meant to, its skin has a very good fibre structure. The resulting leather will be strong and will age beautifully. Experienced leather artisans, like Bill Amberg who responded to this question in our session, can attest to this. There is a tangible difference between leather from an animal that grew naturally, versus one that was fattened quickly on an unnatural diet and therefore has a weaker skin.

However, if we take the modern-day conventions of the leather industry, the question of quality gets a bit more complicated. That is because standardisation is paramount in the mass production of goods – but being a product of nature, cattle hides are not perfectly uniform. Therefore, very often, conventional leather is heavily manipulated (imprinted and coated), a process that is described as the “correction” of “flaws.”



Photo credit: Jason Lowe 1-3 Sara Grady 4

The hides of pasture-raised cattle are wonderfully, beautifully filled with character. Those neck wrinkles from grazing, (“growth marks”), or lines from a scrape with brambles, or scratches from satisfying an itch on a fence or a tree -- all are evidence of a life spent in fields, hedgerows, and woodlands. Perhaps what needs correcting are our expectations of this material.

The question of quality can be redefined. We can choose to find beauty in marks that tell a story of an animal, a landscape, an ecosystem, and a food system. And looking deeper than beauty, we can judge quality by whether a material emerged from systems that are detrimental or beneficial – to nature, animals, and people.

British Pasture Leather is made by preferencing regenerative farming practices, first and foremost. These farms are improving the health of soils and ecosystems, increasing biodiversity, producing healthy food, and maintaining vibrant rural landscapes. Beneficial impacts that are implicit in the value of the resulting leather, in addition to its tangible material high quality.


I’m reminded of last year’s Groundswell, when British Pasture Leather was joined by journalist Dan Saladino, author of “Eating to Extinction”, an index of foods that are preserving crucial biodiversity which urgently needs saving. In that discussion, we were considering how food and material can be appreciated not only for its deliciousness or its beauty, but for the good it can do in preserving nature and culture, biodiversity and tradition, soil and place. Dan’s words at Groundswell last year could have been borrowed for our Q&A this year, when he said “Throughout the whole food system, we find drives towards cheapness and efficiency – spotless, flawless apples for example – but we have to get beyond the surface appearance and understand the systems behind it.”


Photo credit: Sara Grady


If we do so with leather, we come to a basic realisation: leather is a product of our food system. It is a material emblem of our connections to farms and food production. But the standard leather supply chain doesn’t embrace this fact. Hides are aggregated and treated as anonymous commodities, traded in large number and transported globally with no distinction to indicate the food or farming systems from which they emerge. Typically, the provenance of leather is identified as the tannery where it was transformed from raw to usable material. But of course, there is a story that precedes the delivery of hides at a tannery’s door. And just like we recognise differences in meat, whether it was factory farmed or pasture raised, and we can make choices accordingly – British Pasture Leather exists to give makers and users of leather goods that choice. With this knowledge, it will be possible to use and choose leather that supports farming systems that are restorative and beneficial.

Here’s how it’s done: we source hides from farms that are certified by Pasture for Life, a farming network that “champions the restorative power of grazing animals on pasture.” We purchase those hides from the abattoir (as is customary to acquire hides), but we go further than standard practice, by keeping documentation of the animal IDs for all the hides we use, and allocating additional value for the farmer. We then facilitate the entire process from the salting to the tanning and finishing of that material into leather that can be used for accessories, furniture, and footwear.

Appreciating the beauty and value of this leather means recognising its connection with our food systems, and therefore with landscapes, ecosystems, and rural communities. Given that its natural production ensures its high quality, such appreciation should come easily. But, it requires undoing expectations which we may unwittingly hold. In the case of leather, those expectations are generally that it will be uniform in appearance and perform more like a plastic.



Photo credit: Jason Lowe 1 - 3, Sara Grady 4


Which reminds me of a conversation I had with co-founders of this journal, Olivia Wilson and Jess Blume of the SSAW Collective, in which we found a parallel between their work as florists who focus on local, seasonal flower arrangements, and British Pasture Leather. We share a curious challenge: that of cultivating a sense of beauty and value for something that, although it is clearly a direct product of nature, may be deemed too wild or unpredictable for the very qualities that demonstrate its natural character. The problem is simply that its mainstream industrial counterpart has tricked us for too long. And this homogenisation of natural things (whether it be spotless apples, flawless leather, or stereotypical flowers) is what drives a disconnection from nature. With that we lose biodiversity, and so much more.


An apple is no less nutritious or delicious if it’s asymmetrical, knobbly, or russeted. Adjusting distorted standards of quality lies partly in how we look – and what we believe we see – but also in how we create. In the hands of a designer who appreciates its truth (“this animal clearly lived in a healthy landscape of pasture, hedges, fences”), leather from cattle raised on pasture offers quality, value, and beauty. Leather will be the most enduring part of an animal that was raised for food, and over its years of use, whether as a shoe, bag, chair, or otherwise, its durability will prove its quality and its beauty will only grow.


British Pasture Leather is now offering leather from regeneratively-raised cattle to designers and producers of leather goods.


 

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