Leather in Ubrique

Words: Ollie Horn
Photography: Richard Gaston

Since the 18th century, the pueblo blancho of Ubrique in Cadiz province, Andalusia, has been occupied with the production and manufacture of luxury leather goods. The town originally tanned its own leather, and manufactured small, drawstring pouches for holding tobacco. Equipped with one of the region’s few abattoirs, and with plenty of fresh water supplied by rivers and springs from the mountains – an important requisite for the tanning process – Ubrique was well positioned for such a pursuit.

Today, the leather is tanned elsewhere, but the labour and expertise of leather manufacture has not been lost: more than half of Ubrique’s population are currently involved in the leather industry, and some of the world’s largest fashion houses have their leather produced here. MOVEX Foundation was established in the town in 2006 to help facilitate this, connecting brands with factories, and helping to overcome everyday language barriers, as well as translating the thousands of specialist terms used in Ubrique to discuss the intricacies of leather production.

Tony Kirkendall, a Ubrique-based leather manufacturers, first discovered the town’s propensity for leatherwork when he was working as a luxury goods exporter in Seville in the early 1980s. “I just fell in love with the pieces being made there,” he says. “I decided to start working with leather products full time, and began visiting the town often.”

The partnership began with Connolly’s re-launch in 2016, and has remained strong ever since, producing items such as the Leather Nomadic Chest, Zip Around Leather Travel Wallet, Leather Notebook, and Coat Wallet, in addition to Connolly’s other small leather goods.

With each piece, the process begins with cutting. “Cutting is a skill,” says Kirkendall. “With leather manufacturing, each process is highly specialised. Different cutters know what to look for in the hides, according to what it will be used for. Leather on the exterior of a bag, for instance, must be utterly faultless. A skilled cutter also knows which parts of a hide will work well together across different panels. Once the leather is cut, we use a skiving, or splitting machine, to take down the substance to a certain, consistent thickness. The leather can then be handed to the makers, who begin the process of fashioning it into the particular bag, jewellery box, or belt that might be being made.”

Named after the benches the artisans sit along when working the leather, the factory in Ubrique, works with six other small manufacturers in the town. “The craftsmanship of the town is incomparable,” says Kirkendall. “Children in Ubrique grow up feeling the leather, smelling it, and seeing their parents at work; many stay to work in the leather industry. In this little town, people live leather.”