When did you first start working with leather?
I was a kid; I remember when I was still at school coming into the workshop with my uncles and watching them and they'd happily show me what they where doing - I was fascinated! You can learn a lot just from watching how someone does something, then when I was 14 I started working with them on Saturdays and during the school holidays.
Most of that work was just menial stuff, tidying up, making tea... but you'd get to do a bit of stitching, cutting out and occasional dying/tanning. At the weekends and lunches I used to make a lot of stuff for myself and friends; belts, jacket patches and even things for re-enactment weekends and stuff.
Then at 16 I started an apprenticeship and the work changed greatly - as time had passed the satchel business had slowed down to an almost stop, because kids were buying foreign-made, polyurethane bags with brands printed on them. We had to diversify, which meant I was making all kinds - from music bags and guitar straps through to crepe-soled sandals and belts!
Everything was very low-tech and looking back we have always been surprisingly eco-friendly. It was really enjoyable - I have really fond memories of those times in the old workshop.
So how did you get from there to developing The Leather Satchel Co. into the internationally recognised company it is today?
We focused mainly on being a wholesale business; we used to sell satchels to book stores, music shops, schools and school out-fitters; the biggest change was to focus on selling to consumer. We're a very low-profile family, we don't like to show-off or shout about our skills, so hardly anyone knew about us - even now that's still relatively true, although we are getting more accustomed to making a song-and-dance about things.
Anyhow, we very rarely had customers come and find us and get satchels directly, so it was a real culture change when we started working like this; we had to change the whole structure of the business and have dedicated people answering the phone and providing a superior standard of customer care. Previously we all just used to chip in and do what was needed - there was no procedures or policies like there is now.
What makes the satchel so significant and where did your original design come from?
In the past everyone had one... everyone. It was the defacto school bag. The design evolved over time starting originally with the Roman loculus and has slowly evolved, becoming so popular that from the 1930s to the 1970s almost every school child in the UK owned one.
Children then didn't have access to man made materials, so it was linen, hession and leather as the materials to hand... and only leather could stand up to the abuse of a school day's demands!
The business was established in 1966, so how have you adapted your designs as the company has grown and trends have changed?
Firstly we tweak all the products to fit modern day objects and our changed lifestyle. So when something magically fits inside something - the client thinks "Nice, isn't that a co-incidence, my iPad just fits in this pocket!", but really it was a design choice made years ago. We also follow fashion trends throughout the seasons, and produce limited edition ranges to match.
Even though we are a boutique fashion brand, we're not 100% fashion focused, we're still really makers. We like to give our customers the choice to have what they want, not force on them what we think they should be wearing this season, although we do give our opinion and edit on the seasons styles.
How do you still maintain artistry in your designs?
I think arts and crafts run through the Hanshaw family - we are a close family of very skilled crafts people; my nan is a seamstress, so is my mother and she is also an expert knitter and crocheter - it's kind of in our bones to make and fix things. We're also a very musical family, I think more than half of us can play some musical instrument. I think with those kind of values instilled in you from birth, when you are trying to 'create' something that you've imagined, actually being able to make or create is the next progressive step and it comes easy to us.
Recently, I've been looking at old designs from our back catalogue and seeing how we can evolve these into modern-day products.
Our current exhibition, Build Your Own, is all about tools and making! Could you tell us about the processes involved in making a satchel and what tools you use?
The process depends on what is being made - if it's a one-off prototype, something we rarely make, or something we make every day. The time invested can change quite dramatically too, a one-off bespoke bag can take 20 hours or more to complete, depending upon the exact design; whereas a bag we make all the time like a 14-inch Classic Satchel, may only take two to three hours.
When I am making a bespoke, prototypes or samples then I use very little tools, but if the team are making a general production item then there's quite a lot of tools, jigs, presses and machinery that are used to keep the product quality as consistent as possible.
You can split bag making into five-stages; pattern, cut, mark-up, glue and stitch.
For pattern making I use some stiff material for making pattern pieces. We sometimes use heavy card or leatherboard (like cardboard but made from recycled leather scraps) but generally now we have a laser cutter, so we've started using recycled cast acrylic as the pattern pieces are a lot more durable. Sometimes I wont even bother with a pattern - if it's something I intuitively know how it all goes together, like a satchel, I'll just cut the pieces directly from the hide.
For cutting you need a straight edge, a stylus for marking the leather and a very sharp knife.
For marking up you need various tools; the stylus is very handy, a set of calipers to mark stitch lines, a stitch marker to evenly mark the spaces where the holes will go along the stitch line and an awl to make the holes. Sometimes a special leather pen to write notes or remarks on the leather, that can be wiped clean later will also be used.
Glue is just a simple rubber compound to hold things in place whilst you stitch.
Stitching can be hand-sewn (with saddle needles) or hand-stitched on a specialist heavy-duty saddle stitcher. Hand stitches are time consuming but very strong, not only because it's not a 'lock stitch' like on a stitching machine, but also because you can use very heavy threads, but it can increase the costs of production by around five to ten times depending on the amount of stitching required. A machine stitch is a little neater at times and considerably quicker, for bags you generally don't need the strength of a hand-sewn seam, but it does depend on what you are carrying.
Another important theme from the exhibition is skill sharing and collaboration - could you tell us more about how you recruit your team?
We always recruit locally from Merseyside. The Hanshaw family have been in Liverpool forever - we can trace our family back to the 1700s. Merseyside is very important to us, so everyone who works for us is based in Merseyside. We even try to source whatever raw materials we can from local companies and use local companies as our suppliers wherever possible. I think everyone who works for us is very proud of the company they work for and I like to think we are a really great company to work for - we have profit shares, health plans, training and team days where we'll all go and do something fun or interesting together.
We also have an apprenticeship scheme too... we've been working with Skill Solutions, a training company, to develop the number of curriculums to cater for different roles in the team. The focus here is giving skills to youngsters, especially those eager to learn who may not have had the best start in life, and also ensuring these skills are passed to younger people before they are lost to time.
Moving from your original workshop on Smithdown Road to Huyton, has the process changed at all as your workforce has increased?
Yeah, when I started working for the company there was Steve Hanshaw (now semi-retired), Barry Hanshaw and Paul Hanshaw (who are all my uncles), Kevin McGuinness (who still works with us to this day) and Phil (who was mad crazy about insects and etymology and eventually left to work in the Liverpool Museum), and then little old me.
We used to get leather from Garston tannery (that place really stank!) but it was such a shame they knocked it down - we always thought it come back someday. It's such a loss and that was probably a main catalyst for us deciding to move. Knowsley is a truly great place for us to locate our business; right on the junction of two motorways. The council are very positive towards businesses and helping the economy and the Chamber of Commerce offers so much support.
Now there's about 30 people in the whole Hanshaw family leather-working business (we don't just make satchels and bags; The Leather Satchel Co. is just one of our ranges) and around a dozen of those people work purely on the satchels and bags with myself.
The processes haven't changed - we've done a little time-and-motion analysis and made the layout of the main work areas more efficient but all-in-all everything's almost exactly the same as it was when Uncle Steve started making satchels professionally back in 1966.
You can find out more about Keith Hanshaw and the rest of the team here. Build Your Own: Tools for Sharing is open at FACT until 31 August.