Meet the Makers – Bentleys London interviews Valerie Michael and Neil MacGregor

Valerie Michael and Neil MacGregor

So Val and Neil.. how did you meet each other? What inspired you to get into leatherworking and start your workshop together?

We first met as teenagers in Bristol at the end of the 1960’s. Inspired by the zeitgeist of our generation, within a couple of years we opened a clothes and leather goods shop with no money or experience but plenty of ‘can do’ attitude.

Three years later, in 1974, we moved from the city to a small town in the Cotswolds, sleepy Tetbury, where we rented a tiny workshop and our journey into the craft of working with leather began. In 1976, we were able to buy, with the help of a government arranged loan, an old joinery building with no running water and no living space but plenty of room for a workshop. Over the following 44 years we gradually converted it into a home, showroom and larger workshop suitable for teaching.

What drew you to teaching the art of leather work and running courses from your Tetbury workshop?

In 1993, Valerie published ‘The Leatherworking Handbook’ and within a short time requests for classes began to come in. Valerie had already been running short courses at West Dean College, so the challenge was really to run the courses, covering specific skills based around her book, in the Tetbury workshop.

Over the years, our courses have developed in response to the needs of students and our own development as designer/makers. We offer introductory courses for complete beginners and now run advanced courses in designing and making bags, mens leather goods and luggage – designed for leather working students that need to progress their working practice.

When the Bentleys team came to Tetbury in 2019, we found the course to be technically challenging but a highly rewarding experience. What would you say is the toughest skill to pick up in leatherwork? What gives you the most pleasure?

Before any skills can be learnt, the student needs to trust their teacher and be willing to take instruction, so the first skill for students to learn is humility. Trying to stitch neatly and consistently, while holding the awl as well as the two needles, can be a challenge for beginners. However, I know that if they persevere, their body will adjust and learn and they will build their confidence by not giving in.

Are there any recent commissions that you’ve been especially excited about? 

The Mayor of Tetbury, Nikki Ind, recently came to visit to talk about commissioning a bag from us to mark her time as mayor. We started the process by discussing the style and size of bag she wanted. Once we had a sense of her needs, we sketched some ideas and showed her some existing designs as inspiration. Nikki chose an existing design, our ‘Tetbury Bag’,  originally made by Neil for the exhibition ‘Bags of Style’ at Walsall Leather Museum.

Once we knew the style of the bag, Nikki was able to choose the main body leather, the lining leather, the colour of linen thread, the lock and handle fittings. She wanted her initials incorporated with the Tetbury coat of arms* , two dolphins in a shield, so our son designed the artwork for a brass embossing block.

We made a small stitching sample with the embossing to show her before work began on the bag. It is a challenging bag to make, so every element had to be just right before work could begin.

The commissioning process is about:

  • being clear with the customer that our work is made by hand so the price will reflect this
  • explaining that we only use the best quality leathers and other materials
  • helping the customer understand that we know what is and is not possible and that he/she must trust us to guide them through the design process
  • keeping our customer informed particularly when estimated delivery dates slip

* Tetbury is a landlocked Cotswold town so why Dolphins ?

The most likely story is the following: Iin the 13th Century, Sir William de Braose, a member of the family who owned the manor of Tetbury, was saved from drowning by 2 Dolphins!

Before any skills can be learnt, the student needs to trust their teacher and be willing to take instruction, so the first skill for students to learn is humility.

What can we expect from your time with Bentleys and with Purdey at LCW later this year?

The way we work has everything in common with the vintage luggage and leather items at Bentleys. The traditional techniques we use have been tried and tested for hundreds of years. By setting up a workshop at Bentleys we will be able to show the connections between our contemporary designs and the fine leather items of the past through our use of similar tools, processes and materials.

To quote D H Lawrence’s poem, ‘Things men have made’

Things men have made with wakened hands and put soft life into,

are awake through years with transferred touch, and go on glowing

for long years.

And for this reason, some old things are lovely,

warm still with the life of forgotten men who made them

During our time in Bentleys we plan to work on a Trunk commission,  bags for men and women and small leather items like luggage tags, card cases and wallets.

Surprisingly few people have ever experienced making something without the aid of machinery so we will run 3 workshops during our residency allowing small groups to make a hand stitched luggage tag. Participants will be able to choose different coloured leathers and threads, learn how to glue, stitch and edge finish all within a 3 hour time frame.

MacGregor and Michael have been making special items for James Purdey and Sons Ltd for a number of years. For London Craft Week 2020, Valerie will spend a day at Purdeys demonstrating and running 2 workshops for people to make a hand stitched oak bark leather card case. 

For the first time, Tim Bent and Neil MacGregor will co-present a talk in the Long Room at Purdeys ‘ Trunks and Luggage – from 18th to 21st century’  – connecting the vintage trunks and luggage at Bentleys with the range of contemporary trunks and luggage recently developed by Purdey and the bespoke trunks and luggage hand made by MacGregor and Michael.

Is there a craftsperson you admire or tip for big things in the future?

In the world of leather we greatly admire the work of Yukihiro Fujii and Rie Kimbara, known as ‘Fugee’. Not only are they superb designers and makers but are wonderful people. Instagram: @fugee_bespokebagmaker

When travel restrictions are lifted, where is top of your Wishlist for a destination to visit?

We have been invited to Japan by Yukihiro and Rie so this is top of our list.

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