Did you know that you can buy a leather bag named after a Shaftesbury area village? You could pop to the shops with your Semley tote or head to the tennis club with your Donhead duffel!
ThisisAlfred.com’s Keri Jones went to meet Martin Allen, a leather worker who handcrafts bags and belts from Little London Farmhouse in Guy’s Marsh. Martin explained that he is not interested in mass production or making much money. He said that it is important that he crafts a product that he feels proud of.
“I set up a little website twelve months ago and from that I’ve had mainly commissions. That’s interesting because each one is a new project. If I like the challenge, then I accept it. If I don’t want that then I say that I am sorry and don’t accept it,” Martin explained.
Some customers of Martin’s Little London Leather business have a clear idea of what they want. “People will see something made by a designer manufacturer. Perhaps they can’t afford it so they will ask me to make something similar. They might see one of my bags and like the style but they find it a bit too big or small and they will ask me to alter my pattern, so I’ll do that. We can choose the colours and sizes to tailor-make the bag,” Martin said.
As every bag is handmade, and many of his commissions are bespoke, it’s not surprising that Martin’s customers express a high degree of satisfaction. He said that the best kind of compliment he receives is when people come back and buy another bag. “A lady last Christmas bought two for herself and came back and bought one for her daughter. That was rather nice,” he said.
After chatting for five minutes, we had attracted an audience. Twenty feet away from Martin’s garden table, a herd of fifty cattle had congregated alongside a length of fence. I’m not sure whether these neighbours in the adjacent field were terribly impressed that we were talking about leatherwork.
Martin moved to North Dorset three years ago after a successful business career in the Bournemouth area. He is descended from a long line of grocers. His family has been in retail for 250 years. “We specialised in the provision side of the grocery trade, selling dairy products, bacon, home cooked meats, homemade pies and sausages. So completely different to what I’m doing now!” he smiled. We laughed at the suggestion that Martin couldn’t escape from working with cow products.
I was keen to discover what gave Martin the idea of making bags in the first place. “When you’re in business you need an outside interest,” Martin explained. “I never had time for sports like golf so I needed something I could do at home that I could pick up and put down. Leatherwork is a tactile thing. It’s nice and quiet and takes your mind off other things. And it’s creative. It’s something I think I can do into old age. I’ve always had a mind for it but since we moved here I’ve been able to completely immerse myself in it,” Martin said.
“In my early days I worked in menswear. That’s where I first gained my appreciation of leather because we would sell leather jackets and coats. I’ve always liked nice shoes,” he said. When you see the quality of Martin’s craftsmanship it is hard to believe that he has received no formal training in leatherwork.
“I’m self-taught completely, originally from books and more recently the internet. If you have a problem with one area of bag making you can usually find somebody online who can help you or Youtube can help you out,” Martin said.
Martin has recently returned from his Northamptonshire-based leather supplier with enough material to see him through until spring. “They have 2,000,000 square feet of leather in stock at any one time. These leathers come from all over the world. There’s lots of Italian leather and English leather that is tanned in Italy and sent back to this country. The Italians do have a way of finishing leather, which is really nice. It’s tactile but hardwearing and good value for money. I got a couple of really nice deerskins from Northern Europe. These are beautiful and an inspiration for what I could make with them.”
Martin offered to show me his workshop. I had expected to be taken to a dark, cobweb filled shed. Instead we headed inside Martin’s immaculate house and climbed the stairs, entering a large and airy bedroom that Martin had set up for his leatherworking.
The sweet smell of leather filled the air. There were workbenches along opposite sides of the room. Graph paper was laid across one bench. That’s where Martin lays out his patterns. “You attach the stitch lines and buckles first and then you stitch the bag together. You need a head knife for cutting the leather and two needles,” he gestured as he gave me a brief overview of the bag making process.
Martin makes every bag and belt by hand. “I have no machines at all,” he said. Martin does use a tool for thinning leather. “If I need to make the end of a belt thinner, I can put it through there and it shaves a bit of leather off.” He has a separate gadget for rivets.
Martin picked up a cobalt blue piece of leather, an Italian variety known as ‘crazy cow’. He flipped it over to reveal a very soft, suede-like skin on one side. “You get a skin side and a flesh side. But they have roughed up the skin side to make it look like the flesh. They have finished the flesh side to look like skin. It gives a completely different feel to the leather. It’s lovely and soft.”
Martin bent the leather and it immediately changed colour, darkening along the fold. “When I make a bag, and it goes around a curve in the bag, it will give it tonality. But if you rub it, it goes back to where it was,” he said.
Although Martin’s products are made to a high professional standard, he insists that Little London Leather is not a full business. He argues that this is really just his hobby. It’s fair to say that if Martin’s prices reflected the time he spent making the bags, they would prove too expensive for many customers.
“A Semley totebag would take the best part of a week. It depends whether I dye the leather myself, which extends the process,” Martin said. “When I made a backpack, it took 80 hours. Even if I charged minimum wage for my work, at £10 an hour, that would be around £800 for the bag! And there’s the cost of the leather. I do operate at a loss – but hobbies cost money.”
Martin tried to manage his summer workload so he could spend more time in the garden. And I could understand why. As we chatted, the beautiful, flower-filled space reminded me of the dream gardens you see on programmes like ‘Gardeners’ World’. I wasn’t surprised to learn that his wife, Cynthia, is a garden designer. Her designs have been exhibited at Chelsea for three years running.
As the days draw in and the weather makes it more difficult to sit outdoors, Martin says that he will buckle down to the bag making business. When the orders come, they can take between a fortnight and six weeks for completion. And here’s your chance to have a bag style named after your street, village or estate.
“I did recently have a commission for a backpack and the lady asked whether I could call it the Manston,” said Martin. That’s because Martin uses local place names for all of his bags. His Shaftesbury satchel is the best seller. His Tollard, Shroton and Semley tote bags are also hugely popular.
“I look at the bag and l study a list of villages around Shaftesbury. When a name seems to suit a particular bag, I name it after that village. I’m running out of villages now,” laughed Martin. “I might have to diversify to places elsewhere in Dorset.” Martin is yet to create a Guy’s Marsh model. There’s potential to own the prototype if you’re one of his neighbours.
Most of Martin’s business has come from personal recommendation or through his littlelondonleather.co.uk website. But he said that he wants to find a retail outlet in Shaftesbury. “It would be really nice if there was a local shop that would like to hang a few bags on a stand and sell them for a commission. Otherwise, I’ll just carry on taking commissions. Is not the business, it’s just a hobby.”
Now the word is out, Martin is probably going to be rather busy. So be patient if you have ordered your handcrafted, bespoke bag or belt. You may have to wait a few weeks for such quality workmanship – but it will be worth it.