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March 14, 2007

Interview with J. Hewit & Sons LTD, Roger Barlee & David Lanning

Filed under: General — jackie @ 9:05 am

To a bookbinder or book artist what can be more satisfying than the feel of smooth calfskin leather stretched taut over boards or the soft feel of textured goatskin wrapped around a block of sewn paper. Most bookbinders and book artists, no matter how long they have been practicing their craft, eventually get drawn in by the seduction of leather for covering their books.

One of the companies that has been supplying leather to bookbinders and book artists for many years is J. Hewit & Sons Ltd. The company can trace its history back to about 1806. How long they were in business before that is still a bit sketchy.

Photograph of the old location of the London Sales Office & Warehouse

If you visit the web site of J. Hewit & Sons Ltd you will find a wealth of information on their history and their products as well as links and information on bookbinding and the book arts community. They also publish a bi annual online newsletter Skin Deep that has many great articles not only on leather production but all aspects of books and bookbinding as well. Beware…if you click the newsletter link you will find yourself, as I did, there for hours and hours and hours as there is the current issue available and all the previous issues dating back to the spring of 1996.

 Leathers stored in the main warehouse

Roger Barlee is the Director and David Lanning is the Sales Director of J. Hewit & Sons Ltd. Recently I had a chance to ask them a few questions but, because there is so much information already on their site, they made my job much harder as I had to think up questions that weren’t already answered there.

Here are my meager questions and their very informative answers.

[TJBookarts] Your history page has some great background information on how the business got started. Could you tell me a little bit about yourselves? How long has each of you been part of the business, what aspects do you oversee, what is your favorite aspect of the business, etc.?
Roger - I started working in the tannery from my mid-teens in the school holidays, and had become proficient on most machines and processes before I left school.  On leaving school  I studied chemistry at Aberdeen University and went on to complete a HND in Leather Technology from Nene College in Northampton, England.  Coming into the family business was something I had wanted to do since I was young, so was very happy to join the company full-time in 1984.  My father retired in 1992, and I stepped into his role of Managing Director.  My chief rolls are the overseeing of leather production and many administration functions of the company.  If I could wave a magic wand I would drop all the admin jobs and would be as happy as a sand-boy in my wellies (Wellington Boots) just making leather. What many people do not realise is that no two batches of leather ever work the same, and the challenge for us tanners is to make the next product as close as possible to the last.
David - I came to Hewits by way of an agricultural and farming background.  In fact my expertise was growing bananas and avocados, but that’s another story……   In 1987, I heard through a friend, that there was a Sales managers job going at a company that manufactured leather for books.  I considered myself reasonably well-read, but knew nothing about leather and even less about bookbinding.  In the middle of a snow storm, I went for an interview with my predecessor, Robin Turnbull and was immediately enthralled with the idea of working in this business.  He obviously liked me, as I started working for the company a few weeks later.  I am the Sales and Marketing Director and I look after what my title suggests.  I also maintain our web site.  My favourite aspect of the business is meeting with our customers both in the UK and overseas.
 Dried skins at The Crust Warehouse awaiting further processing
[TJBookarts] Do either of you practice bookbinding or the book arts?
Roger - Many years ago, I took a part time class in Edinburgh and enjoy repairing some of my own projects.
David - It was apparent back at my interview in 1987 that I knew nothing about bookbinding, so I asked Robin whether I should find a course to study bookbinding.  His response was “Absolutely Not”!!  He explained that the last thing I wanted in my role as Sales Manager/Director was to ‘take on board’ the techniques and views of one teacher, and to ‘narrow’ my outlook.  He said it was very important to keep an open mind to the many different bookbinding techniques available.  I certainly took his advice to heart as I consider myself to be a competent theoretical bookbinder with knowledge I have picked up over the years, but I am yet to wield a bone folder in anger!
Spraying dye onto bookcalf 

[TJBookarts] I read with great interest the article in your Newsletter Skin Deep, Volume 20 2005, on The Rise and Fall of the Institutional Bindery and The Public Library. In what way, if any, has the “digital era” changed the way you do business now and how do you see it changing your business in the future?
David - The digital era has seen the end of some aspects of our business.  This can be seen most predominantly amongst the way reference books are published.  One significant party of our business used to come from the supply of leather for encyclopaedias and legal reference books, but this type of publishing has all but disappeared with the advent of the CD and Internet.  Lawyers appearing in court, no longer need take in their stacks of reference books as all of the information they require is contained on CD’s and can be displayed and cross-referenced from the laptop computers.  Like wise, when my children are doing their homework, they no longer need to search through out-of-date encyclopaedias on the shelf.  They just trawl through Goggle and the information is to hand in the ‘blink-of-an-eye’.  But this same technology has assisted in creating and maintaining our own website and allows us to keep in touch with our customers and friends both here in the UK from around the World.
Slickering Calfskins onto plates of glass on our glass drying machine. 

 Measuring the thickness of the skins

[TJBookarts] If you had one tip or piece of advice each of you would give to someone starting to work with leather for bookbinding what would it be?
Roger - When buying leather, give your leather supplier as much information as possible.  When selecting skins for you, it helps us to know that type of book you are binding and the approximate size of the piece(s) required.  If you are in a position to give us as much notice as possible, then we will have a better chance of matching your requirements.
David - There are only a few manufacturers of proper bookbinding leather in the World and we appreciate your support!  There is something very special about a book bound in a quality bookbinding leather. And whilst you may be tempted to use ‘cheaper imitations’, nothing beats the ‘real McCoy’.


To learn more about J. Hewit & Sons Ltd, as well as to read a wealth of information on leather and the bookarts, please visit thier website

All photographs presented in this article are copyright J. Hewit & Sons Ltd

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1 Comment

  1. fascinating! Thanks for bringing us such a variety of great information from across the globe!

    Comment by Kristin — March 14, 2007 @ 11:02 am

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