Ethical, sustainable and beautifully crafted: meet the modern tanners turning goat farm leftovers into luxury goods

Jack Millington, co-owner of Billy Tannery in Leicestershire
After making waves in the restaurant world with their goat leather goods, Jack Millington and Rory Harker are looking to expand – and they need our help Credit:  John Lawrence

Goat meat has long been a staple of Middle Eastern, Asian and Caribbean cooking. UK restaurateurs have also started to champion goat, and it has been making it into all the major food trends reports alongside veganism and wonky veg, winning points on sustainability as much as taste.

Some 100,000 kid goats supply these markets in this country every year, and soon, according to James Whetlor, founder of goat meat pioneers Cabrito, it will be in our supermarkets too.

But the story doesn’t end there, as I find out when I visit Jack Millington, co-founder of the UK’s first – and only – goat tannery, Billy Tannery.

Since 2017, Millington and his business partner and childhood friend Rory Harker have been pushing the boundaries of ‘nose to tail’, taking the skins left from Whetlor’s goats and creating beautifully crafted wallets, bags, shoes and aprons – I would seriously recommend taking a look at their backpacks; they’re gorgeous. But in the face of an expensive relocation, Millington and Harker are hoping to raise the money to expand the business further.

“We both grew up in the Midlands, Rory in Northamptonshire and me in Leicestershire,” Millington tells me as he opens up the doors of the outhouse-cum-tannery. The operation currently takes place in a former stable on what was his family’s farm.

The goat skins are hung out to dry after being tanned in the drum Credit: John Lawrence

Though his parents have now moved onto another dwelling nearby, Millington has had the good fortune of a generous new owner, allowing him to keep the two lofty tanning drums in the main space of the stable. It truly takes the term ‘micro-tannery’ to a new level.

“Dad used to keep goats himself. Not for milking – he had a pedigree breed called a boer goat, about 100 of them at one point. That’s probably what got me involved in the first place. I grew up around it, and wanted to do something that married rural and city life.”

Having moved to London to work in advertising, Millington began researching around the idea of goat skins – as one does – and the possibility of creating goat leather. During this time, he found himself in conversation with Whetlor, whose goat meat business was making waves across the London restaurant scene. “I think it was over Twitter at first,” he recalls, “That’s the way most of this came into being, through reaching out using any means possible to find out how to get this started.”

With a supply of skins sorted, this left merely the equipment, the site, the designer, the craftsmen and, crucially, the know-how, left to acquire. Luckily for them, the British tannery circle is a relatively small one, and it didn’t take long for the ball to start rolling.

“We managed to get in contact with Paul Evans from the University of Northampton, which has an Institute for Creative Leather Technology. He taught us the method, helped to source the drums, and even came and worked with us more formally as a consultant when he retired from the university.”

The drums in question – two towering wooden barrels painted in cerulean blue that dominate the stable (“Had they been a centimetre or so larger they wouldn’t have fitted through the door”) – were acquired from the last remaining business that deals with tannery equipment in the UK. The drums were “lying around” after a sheepskin tannery closed down in the 90’s.

The process of creating supple, soft leather from dried and salted goat hides is laborious, and one that Millington has had to adapt to the space he shares with the owner of the farm. To the dulcet tune of the farmer’s Jack Russell yapping at us from the door (“He’ll quieten down once he gets bored with you”), he explains the several different stages that the skins must go through.

“First we wash the hides to get rid of any salt from the skin, used to preserve them,” explains Millington. The skins are then soaked in lime to rid them of hair, de-limed and brought back to a neutral pH, pickled in a simple solution of water, salt and acid, and tanned using a solution of concentrated ground mimosa bark. “Vegetable tanning ensures we release as little pollutant into the surrounding countryside as possible, plus it gives the leather a lot of character.” Many tanneries will instead use chromium sulphate to tan the leather, which can produce a toxic by-product and affect the smell of the leather.

The leather must go through several stages that take place within the two drums before they are ready for tanning Credit:  John Lawrence

Finally, the skins are hung up to dry in a small but functional drying room – a former stable – one-by-one on a large drying rack. Most of this work is done by Millington himself, with the occasional help of his dad. “This can take anything from 24 hours to a few days, depending on the season.” Bearing in mind the quality of the end product, it’s a surprise to discover that the drying room is little more than  a set of specialist drying racks, a small heater and a dehumidifier.

He hands me a piece of the finished product; a smooth, peach-hued leather with a wonderful softness. Normally the leathers are then dyed their signature chestnut brown or forest green colours before being turned into artefacts or garments (those backpacks, seriously), but he tells me that occasionally they will use it in its natural colour. “It takes on a gorgeous deep colour with age, and the grain is unique to every different piece.”

Of course, the whole process has been a steep learning curve, with a few lessons learned the hard way. “Once, we managed to miscalculate the amount of lime that went into the drum by 10 times the amount. Paul got a bit excited that it worked out to exactly one sack of lime and chucked it all in. Nothing there was salvageable. Luckily that hasn’t happened too many times.”

Harker, with a background in graphic design, has been at the helm of the product side of the business, working with makers in Leicestershire and Somerset to create their wallets, bags and aprons, and bespoke coasters, placemats and menus for restaurants such as Pensons in Herefordshire (a recent recipient of a Michelin Star) and Restaurant 1251 in London

Products include backpacks, wallets, card holders and leather cases Credit:  John Lawrence

It sounds like the perfect modern day success story; if they were in the Dragon’s Den, they’d surely have Peter Jones chomping at the bit. But a spanner was thrown into the tannery after the men discovered they would have to move after the farm was recently sold.

Their new premises, a vast, purpose-built barn situated on Millington’s parent’s new farm, will give them the space they badly need, allowing them to scale up production and expand their range of products. “The main benefit of the new tannery would be the large, insulated drying room. Things will dry a lot quicker, especially throughout the winter, so we can be much more consistent throughout the year.” And, importantly, no more yapping Jack Russell at the door.

But the move will not be easy, or cheap. After successfully crowdfunding to get the business going in 2017 via Kickstarter, the pair have set up an Indiegogo funding page, inviting people to pledge money to help them move their equipment and convert the new space, in return for backpacks (gorgeous backpacks, I might add), card holders, feast nights at top restaurants (goat-meat-centric, of course) and micro-tannery masterclasses. As I write they have already raised £9,000 of their £18,000 goal, but as time ticks they are understandably on edge.

I have every confidence that the pair will raise the money they need and more; their products tap into a hugely growing trend for knowing where your clothes come from, how they are created and who is creating them. “People are really beginning to care about closing the circle of production and consumption, ensuring that we make, buy, eat and wear locally-crafted things, and waste as little as possible.” And those backpacks – did I mention? – are seriously nice.

To browse their collection and pledge a donation in return for one of their products, go to indiegogo.com. As part of Goatober, Billy Tannery are also co-hosting a three-course feast at Kricket in London on October 28. To book tickets, visit goatober.com.