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A HISTORY OF SHEEPSKIN

Mummy found in 2013 wearing sheepskin. Picture Credit: Xinhaunet

From humble beginnings....

Amidst the cider, and rolling beaches, the West Country sits in the very heart of the sheepskin industry. In its prime the area was producing 80% of Western Europe’s sheepskin, and around two million skins every year.

But its beginnings are a little more humble, yet also a part of the mythical Glastonbury legend…

The legend begins in the 1st Century AD when Joseph of Arimatheia – the uncle of Christ – arrived in Somerset and established the first British Church on the site of Glastonbury Abbey. There he began a small Christian community that has built into the town we know and love today.

As legend continued over the centuries, and the community became synonymous with the tales of King Arthur and the Holy Grail, King Alfred settled in the area in the 9th century as a sanctuary from the Great Heathen Army. And thus a different Holy Grail was founded on the Glastonbury plains – sheepskin.

Alfred the great soon had the largest flock in England, but it wasn’t just Wessex that was clothing itself in the warm, durable hide. Much of the world was too.

Eastern Europe was adorning the Kozukh and Cojuc to keep shepherds warm; whilst sheepskin boots can be traced back to at least 500 B.C. after a mummy in China was uncovered wearing a pair. 

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Morlands opened up the country’s first tannery....

It wasn’t until the early 19th century however that sheepskin became the town’s main export. Morlands opened up the country’s first tannery in 1825, moving to a site down the road in Northover – which was soon to become the very epicentre of the trade.

By the early 20th century more and more tanneries were cropping up in Glastonbury, but unlike Alfred the Great who was hiding from war when he laid down the foundations all those years ago, the industry was on the front line supporting Britain’s troops.  

You can read all about how the tanning process works right here in this Wikipedia article.

Pictured: The Morlands Factory in 1925

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From Everest to Knightsbridge....

Sir Edmund Hillary

As the RAF’s Spitfires and Hurricanes marauded overhead, risking their lives in the Battle of Britain, the factory workers at Morlands below were painstakingly working overtime manufacturing one million pairs of flying boots for our heroes.

13 years later and they were producing more boots to go down in history as Sir Edmund Hillary set out on his expedition to be the first man to climb Mount Everest – noting that his boots were an essential part of staying frost-bite free. 

Vivienne Westwood with Malcolm McClaren. Dave Hogan
Getty Images

Throughout the 80s it was climbing high again, but in the popularity stakes. Thanks to designers such as Vivian Westwood the UK industry became the height of fashion. Where once it was explorers and shepherds utilising the material, it was now wrapping itself around the shoulders of models and rock stars as they graced the famous Pyramid Stage just a few miles down the road.

Gerard Butler 2014
Photo: Pacific Coast News

The early 2000s however was a different story. Foot and mouth devastated livestock throughout the UK. Over five million sheep were slaughtered during the outbreak, diminishing turnover in the industry by around 50%.

Yet it has risen from the ashes. Like a woolly phoenix, tanneries are once again producing some of the world’s most renowned sheepskin products, from car mats for Rolls Royce, to coats for Hollywood’s elite as they saunter down Knightsbridge or the Upper West Side.