The making of saddles, bridles and other leather accessories for equine use.
|Historic area of significance||Walsall, West Midlands|
|Area currently practised||UK|
|Origin in the UK|
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required|
|Current no. of trainees||50+ (estimate – exact numbers unknown)|
|Current no. of skilled craftspeople||1000+ (estimate – exact numbers unknown)|
|Current total no. of craftspeople||1000+ (estimate – exact numbers unknown)|
The earliest known document referring to the Saddlers of London dates from the second half of the twelfth century, although it possible that a guild of saddlers existed before the Norman conquest. Saddlery as a craft obivously existed long before this.
Today, the craft of saddlery is still producing products that are in widespread use and which have remained essentially unchanged for centuries.
Cutting, marking, edging, creasing, staining, stitch-marking, stitching, punching, blocking, polishing, as well as precise measured techniques using dedicated tools.
- Side saddle making: A side saddle is a type of saddle which allows the rider to sit aside rather than astride a horse. Interest in side saddles is enjoying a revival – more people are riding side saddle and wounded vets with limb loss are discovering the opportunities side saddles offer in their rehabilitation. The craft of side saddle making is healthy, with a good number of saddlers specialising in side saddles. Perhaps 11-20 skilled side saddle makers, and several trainees.
- Collar making: Collar making skills are critically endangered with probably only 4-5 people making collars in the traditional way and in any sort of volume. The Saddlery Training Centre ran courses in collar making for many years but the demand has virtually disappeared, although the last training consultant (John McDonald) will still run a course for anyone seriously interested in learning the skills. However, only a very small proportion of those who attended a course went on to develop the skill and become a good collar maker – the skills can be learned on a week’s training course, but it takes a lot of practise and perseverance to become a proficient collar maker. The main market for collars is for heavy horses – but the use of heavy horses fell dramatically across the twentieth century. Collars are also used for private driving. Whilst the skills are pretty much the same for both heavy and driving collars, makers tend to specialise in one or the other. Because of the size, the heavy collar is harder to make and takes longer. Many collars today are using synthetic materials rather than the traditional rye straw, and it is those traditional skills that are endangered.
- Military harness making: By definition the only ones using military harness are the military (the King’s Troop and, to a lesser degree, the Household Cavalry). The issues for military harness making is where the Ministry of Defence places its contracts.
- Case work: Case work is specialised but not endangered.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
While saddlery is not endangered, it is a relatively small craft that needs constantly to be vigilant about the threats it faces, especially the tendency of government to tinker with the apprenticeship funding framework and other regulatory interference.
Funding issues/training issues: Factors affecting ability of master saddlers to take on and train apprentices – usually economic or insufficient business to sustain two salaries.
Funding issues/training issues: Side saddle making is an expensive discipline to master and unfortunately out of reach of many craft saddlers.
Training issues: Training in the manufacturing, restoration of side saddle is of the utmost importance. At present there is only one person who has the relevant knowledge and over 60 years experience in this discipline who is passing on his skills – we need saddlers with more experience so they can pass on these skills to future generations.
Shortage of raw materials: Difficulty in sourcing some of the materials needed to carry out the work whether making new or fixing old side saddles.
Craftspeople currently known