In Aveyron, passionate craftsmen keep alive a millennium-old leather tradition – Meanderings through France n° 120
By Annick Dournes
For centuries Aveyron, this beautiful Southern French region set at the foot of the Massif Central, has been a grazing land for cows and sheep, mainly to produce meat and cheeses, including the famous Roquefort. But cows and sheep also mean leather and over the centuries the local leather workers ‘ skill has become the gold standard for the making of gloves, bags, shoes, clothes or even saddles, getting them up to Haute Couture fashion shows. Some of them now open their doors to the public and tourists are welcome to discover these demanding jobs.
Today the city of Millau is famous for its huge bridge spanning over the Tarn valley, fruits of a great technological feat. But long before the bridge was built Millau was the capital city of leatherwork and a centre of excellence representing quality and know-how. After decades of absolute success this flourishing industry slowly declined during the 60’s and 70’s when plastic items flooded the market and later when many workshops were relocated abroad where production costs were cheaper. If thousands of people worked for this industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, only a few dozens were still needed at the beginning of the 21st century to buoy it.
In 2015 eighteen companies decided to join together to make this industry strong again and to keep alive their invaluable know-how. Tanners, glove makers, boot and shoemakers, leather craftsmen and saddlers now unite their forces to pass on their knowledge, train apprentices, create jobs and promote their work within the “Pole du Cuir Aveyron”, a leather business park in Aveyron. Two years later it’s already successful, thanks to the commitment of these 18 innovating and hard-working women and men and their teams.
This “Pole du Cuir Aveyron” was established on Olivier Fabre’s initiative. The Fabre glove factory is a family business since 1924 at a time when there were no less than 60 glove factories in Millau. After WW2 the Fabre House specialized in luxury gloves and worked for haute-couture houses such as Dior or Hermes. Today they still make top of the range gloves and small leather goods sometimes created by famous designers. Using only noble materials each item is entirely homemade with leathers tanned and coloured in Millau tanneries. The workshop is open to the public and you will discover each step of gloves making. Every piece of skin is hand cut by a highly skilled worker. It takes at least 4 to 5 years to master this crucial stage. Then the gloves are sewn by hand or by machine before being lined with silk, cashmere, mink or angora… and finally ironed using the famous “warm hands” to smooth the leather and fix the final form. It’s a demanding and fiddly process and if wearing these gloves is a privilege it’s an affordable one, so don’t hesitate to try them on in the shop located in the same historical building in Millau city centre or in the Parisian shop at Palais Royal. More at: http://www.maisonfabre.com/home.php
Gaston Mercier is a talented rider who won many international long-distance races over the years and has devoted his life to horses. His love for horses made him realise that the saddles used by the vast majority of riders were ill-fitting and although he had no training in saddlery he conceived a revolutionary type of saddle adapted to the horses’ anatomy and comfort. Gaston Mercier’s saddle is positioned over the 13th dorsal vertebra of the horse, behind its usual place, relieving his shoulders of the riders’ weight It gives a better balance and ease to the rider and an optimal mobility and sense of freedom to the horse. For 30 years now Gaston makes these state-of-the-art bespoke saddles, never stopping improving them. He now uses carbon fibre to make light and flexible saddlebow when most saddle makers still use heavy and stiff wooden ones.
Riders from all over the world, experienced riders, trekkers, dressage contestants or long distance enthusiasts… go to Saint-Leons, the tiny village where Gaston lives, to get the perfect saddle. Some of them even come with their horse so that all measurements and testing can be done on the spot. But he is now developing a new project allowing the use of 3D images made from the horses’ photos and get the ideal saddle for lucky horses all over the world. In addition to saddles Gaston also created girths that don’t injure horses, bridles that leave the first cervical vertebra free from excessive tension and visionary stirrups bringing more stability, comfort and balance to the rider. There are all hand made in Gaston’s workshop. Riders, if you love your horses you now know where to go to get these unique products! More: https://www.gaston-mercier.com/en/
Le Sac du Berger:
It takes determination and a total trust in your GPS to drive on the narrow road that leads to this ancient beautiful sheep pen where Jean-Pierre Romiguier set his workshop up 30 years ago. His original idea was to re-create the leather bag carried by the shepherds during the transhumance, which is part of the rural local heritage since the 17th century. No one knew anymore how to make this bag that had to be strong, waterproof and large enough to hold tools, ointments and medicine for the sheep as well as the shepherd’s daily snack. Jean-Pierre had to examine and take to pieces several “antique” bags got from old shepherds or bought in flea markets to design a pattern.
Made with top quality full grain cow leather locally tanned, his bags were immediately successful not only with shepherds but also with all kind of people who just liked to have a beautiful original bag that takes on a nice patina over the years. Today ten people work with Jean-Pierre and they make a wide range of products: black, red and tawny shepherd bags of numerous sizes, shoulder bags, rucksacks, shopping bags, purses, belts, shoes, slippers, jackets… Everything is handmade with the same demanding concern for quality and authenticity. The workshop and a shop are open to the public, but you can also shop on line at: https://www.lesacduberger.com/
If the Pechdo Tannery now is 117 years old it certainly doesn’t rest on its laurels and innovation is the core of its present activity making it the unique tanner in the world able to make washable lamb leather, tactile leather or heat resistant leather! Leathers made here are 100% Millau and the company favours short supply channels to get its cows, lambs or goats’ skins. Their soft leathers have a wide range of colours and their exceptional performances are well-kept trade secrets. Clothes made with their washable leather can be machine washed under normal delicate wash cycle and stay soft and keep their colour. Gloves made with their “Easy Touch” tactile leather allow an effective control of any smart-phone, tablet or computer even if it rains. Especially made for bikers’ clothes their “Summer Leather” keeps them cool by reflecting the sun before being heated. High technology combined with top quality seems to be Pechdo leitmotiv! http://tanneries-pechdo.fr/en/
If you enjoy discovering passionate and skilful craftsmen Aveyron is the right destination for you. Beside leather workers there are many others to meet, such as knife makers in Laguiole or Najac, cheeses makers in Roquefort or Laguiole, wine makers in Marcillac, Entraygues or Millau… Many of them like Gaston Mercier, Maison Fabre, Tannerie Pechdo or Jean-Pierre Romiguier have been awarded Entreprise du Patrimoine Vivant (Living Heritage Company) by the French State, a label attesting to their excellence of traditional and industrial skills.
If you want to read more about Aveyron, just shift any of these URL to your Internet browser:
– Laguiole: http://b-c-ing-u.com/2015/10/22/laguiole/
– Roquefort: http://b-c-ing-u.com/2015/11/26/roquefort/
– Knights Templar: http://b-c-ing-u.com/2016/01/28/knights-templar/
– City of Rodez: http://b-c-ing-u.com/2016/03/31/rodez/
– Village of Belcastel: http://b-c-ing-u.com/2017/04/13/belcastel/
– Bastide of Najac: http://b-c-ing-u.com/2017/03/23/najac/
– Lot Valley in Aveyron: http://b-c-ing-u.com/2017/03/30/aveyron/
– Estaing Castle & Entraygues: http://b-c-ing-u.com/2017/04/27/estaing/
– Conques Abbaye: http://b-c-ing-u.com/2017/05/18/conques/
Text & Photos ©Annick Dournes