Charlie Borrow started with a mother’s birthday gift.
“One birthday my mum had been going on about a leather bag. She was on Pinterest, liking all these pictures of tote bags. I thought you know what I’ll give it a go.”
Charlie bought some lamb leather out of a bargain bin on Brick Lane, recovered his unused sewing machine and made his first leather bag.
“At first it had been so long since I had used a sewing machine, I forgotten how to thread it up, and the machine was deisgned for gaments not leather. But I made a bag, the seams weren’t perfect, the stitch colour wasn’t exactly right, but it was a bag. She loved it and still has it.”
Since making this first bag … years ago, Charlie has built a successful independent brand, which is grounded in a commitment to the highest quality materials, a responsibility to the environment, and a strong British aesthetic.
The brand, Charlie Borrow, is based in the Cleve workshops in Shoreditch – incidentally just a couple of doors down from S.E.H Kelly.
It’s a small, yet beautifully furnished workshop.The smell of tanned hides, the gleaming copper rivets, the nostalgia of military cloth, and the feel of flax.
The scene is brought to life by Charlie, a warm, energetic maker who talks with infectious passion about his craft.
Charlie, originally from Brighton, earned his national diploma in fashion textiles, at Northbrook College, Worthing before coming to London College of Fashion to study Bespoke Tailoring.
He’s a person who likes to work with his hands, to understand how things work and how to make them better. Understandably, it didn’t take him long to realise University was not for him and he left LCF before completing the course.
“I’m very practically driven, I’m really interested in researching things, figuring out the way things are made. I’m not much of a writer, nor an academic so I left the course before the end of the first year. There was nothing wrong with the course, it just wasn’t right for me.”
We often only highlight the success of graduates, but it takes significant self-awareness and confidence to admit a certain path is not for you.
Upon leaving LCF, Charlie got a job working in the Paul Smith suit rooms, and before long found himself fitting Daniel Day Lewis in Paul Smith’s office.
Charlie explains that doing fittings for clients gave him a good understanding of working in a luxury retail environment and taught him “not to be scared to make decisions on what should and shouldn’t happen to a garment. Obviously during fittings, you do make mistakes, but the job gave me the confidence to believe in my ability to make decisions.”
However, he found his lack of degree prevented him from moving up the ladder at Paul Smith, and a lack of apprenticeship opportunities on Savile Road.
“Companies aren’t taking as many chances now. They’re not saying ‘ok we’ll give you a go’, they want reassurance through qualifications.”
Charlie juggled a part-time job in a bar twice a week, working at Paul Smith three times and garment alterations for friends in what time remained.
It wasn’t until making the bag for his mother’s birthday that Charlie got into leather.
It’s easy to see how the tactile nature of leatherwork, the pattern design, the hand stitching, would appeal to Charlie’s practical nature. And, after selling out of his first collection of leather bags in his parents shop in the outskirts of Brighton, Charlie quickly realised he wanted to commit to the craft.
He went on ebay and found some canvas and leather and made his first prototypes, a rucksack, a tote bag, a card holder. Charlie Borrow was born.
The designs today don’t look too dissimilar from these initial prototypes, but there are subtle differences – in the stitching, the fastenings and the proportions. Charlie’s designs are gradually evolving and perfecting.
What has perhaps evolved the most are the materials. Initially, Charlie used Italian leathers for the body and English bridle leather for handles.
He has a real interest in the UK’s leather industry, particularly bridle leather, and he works with a tannery in Walsall, very traditional saddlery area of the UK, who provide him with buckles and bridal leather.
However, the body of his bags was predominantly Italian leather, until interest from a Japanese agent, persuaded Charlie to commit to sourcing all of his materials from Britain.
“That for me was a real kick to say right let’s just do it properly now. It was what I had wanted to do, I just needed that reassurance that someone was going to buy the product from me, as the British materials are so much more expensive. Italian leather was about £4.50 a square foot, and British £9.50. It’s more than double.”
Charlie began to research into sourcing British leather and began to learn about the various ways leather is made, quickly becoming concerned about its environmental impact. Charlie explains:
“There are three different methods (of producing leather), chrome tannage, which is the chemical tannage that takes around three days. The leather is put into chemical and comes out bright blue. It’s significantly quicker than other methods and it produces a leather which is more heat and weather resistant, but it feels like plastic. Because this method is the cheapest, this is often the leather you’ll come across on the high street when the retailer claims something is ‘real leather’.”
“The second method is vegetable tanning, which is the natural process, which can take around six weeks to six months. This method has a reputation of being the environmentally friendly way, but for me it isn’t quite so simple. Whilst all the elements involved in vegetable tanning is natural, there is a significant amount of waste water and there are a lot of additives like salt, which isn’t good for freshwater, as they then need to purify the water, before it can be released back into the river.”
“The method that my leathers are produced from is called curing. There are only about four tanneries left in the UK that offer this method. It’s the most traditional way, but takes at least a year to turn into leather. They have a pit dug out, in which they put river water and oak chipping. They let that brew for two to three months, then they pump that up to a new pit, all the leather comes in from Somerset, they cut it into its sections, the shoulder, but and belly, they suspend it on sticks, put it in water/oak concentration. There are around 24 pits and each month (for around 10 months) it gets moved to a new concentration which are all of different strengths. Then they leave it to dry for around 2 months. They can colour it by hand with natural vegetable dyes, and hot bees wax to weatherproof it. Obviously the time this process takes means that it is double the price.
With this method there is no waste water, the pits can be reused a number of times, once it becomes too weak, the water can be put back in the river, because the only thing in it is oak bark. The tannery itself is also powered by a water wheel, so it’s a very ecological friendly process.”
Charlie’s understanding of the complexities of leather production is impressive and enlightening. Whilst none of us are perfect – some would argue that the simple act of making more ‘things’ leaves an environmental footprint – you can’t help but admire Charlie’s awareness of his contribution and his commitment to try and lessen it.
“I can’t save the world, but consciously I want to do my bit. One of my challenges at the moment is that much of my canvas, which I use to make the rucksacks, is made from cotton. Obviously cotton production is a very environmentally intensive process, so I am trying to switch to organic cotton, but it’s very difficult to find organic cotton in the heavy duty weights. As of yet, I can’t find anyone who will weave it in the UK.”
Charlie continues to use canvas from Dundee where they finish and waxproof the cotton, but he has also begun to introduce linen into his range, as this is not as harmful to the environment as cotton.
He also works with the British Army mill and buys the end of rolls that the Army doesn’t use – again its waste, putting it to good use, but he might only get two rolls so limited supply.
“The way I think about it is, I’m making a very durable product. If someone buys one, it’s going to last years – it’s not going to be a case of I’ll use it for two years then go and buy another one. I guarantee them all for life. As long as I’m still going, I’ll repair your bag. It’s not a case of, you bought the bag, I’ve got your money, see you later! Bring it back, I’ll wax up the leather and sew a patch on.”
Charlie’s bags feel substantial in the hand, the sturdy bridal leather and hand stitching give them a sturdiness. I wonder how many he actually receives back for repairs.
“I’ve not had one back yet. I started in 2013, and have been properly selling for at least two and a half years.
All the leather goods are hand stitched. Initially Charlie used his machine to stitch but after learning about the benefits of hand stitching – it adds decades to the life of a bag, due to the nature of double needle looped method, which doesn’t unravel – he taught himself to hand sew through a combination of books and YouTube tutorials.
His canvas rucksacks are machine stitched but have hand stitched panels for the bridal leather handles. The rucksacks have beautiful brass buckles, sourced from a brassware foundry in the Midlands. Charlie aslo used solid copper rivets, made in …,
“Lots of rivets will be hollow, with two caps that simply pop together like a pop stud, but can equally pop apart easily. The rivets I use look more like a screw and a washer, which are smashed together, wedged, the excess cut off, tapped down, so that they can’t actually come off. In a factory they would simply pop a rivet on, but it takes me around a minute to put each of mine on. You would only really get these details from a small maker.”
These details don’t come cheap though, and the hand stitching makes the process fairly labour intensive. When I enquire about how long it takes to make one of the larger full leather tote bags, I am shocked at his reply.
“I can make a leather tote bag in a day.
Charlie is a skilled craftsman, but also an astute businessman. He is very aware of the fact that to make a business, you need to be able to make units.
“I was really interested in doing shoemaking, making them handstitched, bespoke leather shoes, but that can be a three week process and when you work out how much you actually get paid for that shoe at the end, you won’t make very much money on it. To make a business work, you need an element of scalability. I still make things in a very traditional way, but obviously the more you practice the quicker it becomes.
Charlie has found ways to make the process more efficient. He designs the patterns, so there are as few seams as possible – less stitching so quicker to make.
You need to have a balance. The products need to be made the proper way, if you’re using quality materials, it’s made in a small workshop in Zone 1 of London where you can meet the maker, with a lifetime guarantee – but I still have to run a business.
Some people walk in and say wow that’s expensive, but then I say, when was the last time you met the person who made the item you were buying? Often the answer is never.
Visit Charlie Borrow at:
4 Cleve Workshops, Boundary St, London, E2 7Jd