A clear example of a UK manufacturer which has stayed loyal to a very specialised niche product and thus continued to thrive despite recent economic trends is L H Nichols. The Yeovil-based tannery are one of only a handful of companies worldwide which tan slinkskins.

L H Nichols process New Zealand baby lambskins, with the lambs being the natural casualties of early season cold weather, rather than slaughtered. There are not many viable alternative sources which offer the level of quality sought by the company, and New Zealand skins are favoured as they offer good density. A further advantage is that NZ lambs are bred for their wool so you don’t get mottled wool as you might on UK lambs.

There have been progressive changes to the breeds of sheep in NZ to favour the meat and wool which they are primarily reared for. These have knock on effects for the tanner. According to Nichols, the quality of curl is not as good as it was thirty years ago and thus takes a bit more processing but, he says, the difference would not be noticeable to the untrained eye.

Skins are collected, graded and wet-salted in New Zealand and then shipped to Yeovil where they are then fully processed. The first container of skins arrives between September and November, which corresponds to springtime in New Zealand.

Nichols control about half of the raw supply of this type of skin, putting them in a strong position in terms of cost effective production. Furthermore, the company have to buy a year’s worth of skins at a time, which offers the advantage of a fixed raw material cost for that year.



The business has identified and been able to move with market trends. L H Nichols began as a contract tannery fifty years ago, processing South American skins for the buoyant glove lining material market.

A change of focus was needed in the late 1960s when the Uruguayan government placed an export embargo on lambskins, with the objective of building up a domestic industry. At the time, New Zealand slinks were not being collected at all, but soon became the mainstay of Nichols production. 

There was a significant shift towards production for garments in the 1980s with exports serving the then thriving German industry. In the 1990s, there was big business to be done in Australia as retailers sold sheepskin garments to Korean tourists who identified them as ‘typically Australian’.

Nowadays, a coat made from slinkskin would cost around £1,000-1,500 at retail and Nichols identifies North America as market with potential growth, despite the current economic situation.


In the tannery

The skins are processed using fleshing machines which are specifically designed for small skins and salty and acidic conditions. Next they are put into drums for scouring, soaking, and chrome tanning. Skins are then buffed on a wheel which is covered with emery and spins at high speed.

As the flesh side is rubbed against the wheel, the tops of the fibres are cut to create the suede effect. This is a very skilled job as the skins are very light and can be torn if too much pressure is applied.

According to the company philosophy, leather should never be rushed. If there are any problems with a skin it is hung out in an area over the tannery to rest, spread and absorb moisture, and thus become stronger and richer. Skins are then hang dried overnight on two hooks (known as tenterhooks, hence the phrase) – one on each back leg. Hang drying is preferred over toggling to ensure that skins have a lot of run in them. ‘Run’ is an important requirement for highest quality gloving leathers as gloves should expand just enough for the shape of your hand, then return to the original narrow form after use.

The staking machine then stretches the skins out and softens them enough for grading. After this, skins go upstairs for selection into the following categories:garment; gloving be it ladies’ weight or heavier men’s weight; lower grade (a very small percentage of production falls into this category and is used for lining).

Finally, skins are dyed in batches. The minimum number of skins Nichols can sensibly dye is 100. The maximum quantity for a single batch is between 800-900 skins. The company offer 130 different colours on suede, tone on tone or contrast – which involves dyeing the wool first then working out the interaction between the wool and the suede side.

Malcolm Nichols affirms that dyeing these skins is an art form, and operators have to rely on skill and experience to create the desired effect. As the weight of the wool versus pelt is unknowable, a computerised system would be of little use here.

The wool is dyed first then the suede side. The only way to get a really white suede is to use a non-chrome tannage.

Nichols says funky effects such as silver foils can be created on slinkskins, but it is fundamentally a classic ladies’ article. 

The traditional mainstay of the business is gloving leather, both at the company and in the Yeovil area. Today, 50% of business is for garments. However, there are few remaining glovers in the UK and, therefore, 85% of production is exported. The leathers are sought by hand-sewn glove makers in Hungary, Southern Italy, Germany, France, the Philippines and Canada, and the market for garment leathers is in Northern Italy, France and Germany.



A small percentage of skins have wool which grows along the skin horizontally instead of outwards/upwards, creating a distinctive natural pattern in the wool. These skins are known as broadtails and are normally dyed black.

The easiest way to identify broadtails is when they are first graded in the wet-salted state as you can see the lustre. They have to be shaved at just the right height and, when finished, they can resemble astrakhan or fur.

According to Malcolm Nichols, the company’s broadtails characterised by this lustre and contouring in the wool were very much in demand from designers at this autumn’s Le Cuir A Paris. Buyers mainly wanted to use broadtails for detailing: on garments to create distinctive trims, collars and cuffs as well as panelling on handbags. Hermes and Dolce & Gabanna currently have a jacket which features a small curl.

Nichols stated that the majority of designers were seeking muted, neutral tones, as there wasn’t enough confidence in the market to go for wilder colours, and thus the tannage and look are harking back to the 1960s.

According to Cindi Barnstable, managing director of Owen Barry and a long standing customer of the tannery, the beauty of the Nichols product is its light weight which makes it drape well, unlike domestic sheepskin. This means it can be handled like a fabric and is, therefore, favoured by fashionistas as it screams affluence and quality.