Back in April, during the AW11 press day season, I encountered the debut collection from Cherchbi, a British leathergoods and accessories company built around a beautiful original tweed. I was instantly drawn to the handsome appearance of the hardwearing range and fell completely head over heels for the label the moment its story had been told to me. A few months on and shortly before its products will be available in a number of stores worldwide (including Kapok, Mr Porter and Fortnum & Mason), it gives me great pleasure to retell the story with the help of Cherchbi’s very own Adam Atkinson.
The brand began in 2007 with an idea to make bags using wool from the ancient rare-breed Herdwick. A breed more familiar for its prized meat than its often neglected wool. Transforming the low value fleece of Britain’s hardiest mountain sheep into high quality tweed became an overriding objective. Alchemy in wool became the obsession. After four years and nine weave trials Herdwyck No.10 bags are launched in Autumn 2011; a new British tweed as robust as the Herdwick itself.
Mapping out the craft behind Cherchbi
The result of much experimentation, Herdwyck No.10 is a pure wool, its colour and texture derived from the distinctive Herdwick fleece. It is spun, woven and finished entirely in the British Isles. The fleece originates in the English Lake District, Cumbria. The yarn is spun in Donegal, the spinning process is slowed down giving the yarn greater strength. The cloth is woven in Wales, extra picks added into the loom create an unusually dense weave. The cloth is bonded with natural rubber to a cotton lining in Lancashire. The result is a unique, naturally robust and waterproof Herdwick woollen tweed. However, it is not just the original tweed that makes these bags so special. All Cherchbi leathers are developed from Northern Irish cow hide and are pit tanned using vegetable tannins with the help of Joseph Clayton of Chesterfield, Derbyshire, who have been tanning leather since 1840. They use the original surface of the hide, or top-grain and retain any individual marks and creases. These little inconsistencies differentiate each hide and make each leather item unique.
To mark the imminent launch of the debut range, we sit down with Cherchbi's founder Adam Atkinson to talk about rare breeds, alchemy in wool, craftsmanship and his hopes for the future...
SS: What were your inspirations, your dreams, and the driving catalyst behind Cherchbi?
Adam Atkinson: Prior to starting Cherchbi in early 2007 I’d worked for two of the largest sportswear brands. Over the previous seven years I’d spent a lot of my time in Asia, helping make product faster, cheaper and in ever-increasing volumes. Throughout this time, the product quality wasn’t improving, and most of it was made from petro-chemical [ie. oil] based raw materials. Simultaneously my own concerns regarding the environment and the ethics of consumerism were being defined. Within my working environment I witnessed the cultural and environmental impact of mass consumerism first hand: the consequences of producing, using and discarding an ever-increasing volume of products whilst the inherent value of these products gradually decreased. All of this contributed to my decision to return home to Cumbria in late 2006. Then, combined with some great experience gained in the industry [don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t all bad...], this all helped form the foundation of Cherchbi.
SS: What was it that first attracted you to the idea to make bags using wool from the ancient rare-breed Herdwick?
Adam Atkinson: I read a story in a local Cumbrian newspaper about some farmers burning Herdwick fleece. Some were making the point that the market price for the wool was so low it didn’t warrant even trying to sell it. So they burnt it, or just discarded it. I had the idea to try to create a new cloth for bags from this under-utilised wool. This seemed like a good opportunity; short term to stop this wool [a natural fibre with incredible properties] being destroyed. Longer term to perhaps create a demand for the wool and increase the price per kilo for the farmers. Perhaps I was dreaming, but this was the basic aim.
Once I started I got hooked into my research. The Herdwick is a great British breed. There’s evidence of Herdwick farms in Cumbria dating back to the eighth or ninth century, the name Herd-wyck means sheep pasture in old Norse language, named by the Vikings that settled northern England around that time. From then until the eighteenth century the wool and leather trade shaped that area of England, from the mountain sheep farms to the economy of the local towns. Kendal, the town where Cherchbi originated, gave its name to Kendal Greene, a wool cloth named in Shakespearean plays and supposedly worn by Robin Hood. Kendal's town motto is ‘Pannus Mihi Panis’ which means Wool Is My Bread. How appropriate. This appears on our bags inner woven labels. Herdwick is more famous now as a rare-breed lamb or mutton served in some of the best restaurants in the UK. With the launch of Herdwyck No. 10 I’m hoping the breed will start to become known for a quality cloth too.
SS: What does Cherchbi mean to you?
Adam Atkinson: A lot. What started as a side project has become almost all-encompassing. Its the first business I’ve established. The first time I’ve tried to run my own business. It’s setting up a brand from scratch, on minimal funding. It’s creating a new cloth and the brand for that too. Its putting my social life on hold for four years, holing myself up in Cumbria and absorbing myself the creation of the brand. It’s been a huge investment of effort, time and money with no guarantee it would get anywhere. Lots of wrong turns and dead ends. Its also a wonderfully cathartic experience. A great vehicle to carry the ideas my head, heart and soul continue to generate. Its a lens through which a new breed of consumer, intelligent and forward-thinking, can view original output from a brand which works with the best British manufacturers, old and new. Its a great adventure. Cherchbi is now a very small company, and will always stay small. The intention at the start, is same as now, to build a brand with consistent integrity and values which puts quality above price.
SS: The main driving force behind the label has been transforming low value fleece into high quality tweed. After four years and nine weave trials, along came Herdwyck No. 10. How enjoyable was this process of wool alchemy? What makes this tweed so special?
Adam Atkinson: It was enjoyable when I started it and it was enjoyable when I finally managed to create the approved tweed. There were also a few points in between that were exciting and interesting. But, the creation of the tweed is the reason the first collection launches in Autumn 11 instead of Autumn 08. It might have been more enjoyable if it was Herdwyck No.1 instead of No.10. But, I guess it wouldn’t be so special, it would’ve been too easy. Perhaps it would have been done before years ago. The long creation process allowed me to refine the product design DNA and develop relationships with the best materials suppliers and manufacturers in the British Isles. It’s also meant Cherchbi launches with a collection of well rounded, fully tested designs in the best quality, fully tested materials. Alchemy in wool might sound a little over-blown, but it was an hallelujah moment.
Herdwyck No. 10 is special because it originates from one of Britains most ancient sheep, it’s spun, woven, finished and laminated in the British Isles to the highest quality standards. The spinning processes are slowed and altered to create extra strength in the yarn. The looms are also adjusted to create a much denser cloth than is usual. The final cloth is so dense light doesn’t pass through it. This is then laminated to a natural rubber which makes the entire cloth impermeable; its waterproof. The raw cloth is already tested to apparel and upholstery standards for abrasion, pilling, etc. The lamination only improves it’s performance. Herdwyck No.10 is as tough as the Herdwicks it originates from. Despite its performance attributes it retains an entirely rustic appearance, it natural tones and rugged surface look exactly like the area and animal it originates from. Finally, one great attribute is that due to the weight and density of the tweed it ages in harmony with the leather. The early samples we tested are wearing just wonderfully.
SS: Craft and local manufacture are obviously very important to you and are dear to us too at Style Salvage. Can you talk us through some of the process involved in creating your bags?
Adam Atkinson: British made was the starting point. Making everything in this country without exception was always intended to differentiate Cherchbi from other brands. In this respect, quality is paramount. Early on I accepted that working with certain materials and processes would be difficult to achieve in Britain, the infrastructure or skills don’t exist here anymore, or were never here. So, I focus on what we’re good at; robust, traditional British quality, with a strong focus on similarly robust, high quality materials. Most Cherchbi materials are also British, certainly all the body fabrics and the leather and as many of the smaller components as possible. We have developed our own leathers with Joseph Clayton in Chesterfield over the past three or four years. They’ve been working at the same site in Derbyshire for one hundred and seventy years, and have a history extending beyond. They specialise in heavy leathers which they pit-tan using bark tannins, essentially the most ancient method leather making dating back millennia. Much of the brassware we use is cast, either sand cast or loss wax cast, in Cheshire and the Midlands. Crafting the raw materials has become as integral to Cherchbi as crafting the bags themselves.
Cherchbi designs play to these strengths of the best makers and materials from the British Isles. They employ traditional techniques, many from equestrian or traditional saddlery making, used in designs for a contemporary situation and use, an example are the strap closures on all our satchels and backpacks which can be open and closed single-handed, great on your bike or when you’re carrying another bag. Inspiration for this one-handed action? The first iPod. Cherchbi designs use the raw materials in a open, honest way. For example the backs of leather straps are all visible, we want to show our leathers from all sides, nothing is hidden and the varying surfaces, textures and qualities are all apparent.
Another commitment from the start is the use of natural, and therefore sustainable materials, and to source these as locally as possible. This was partly due to environmental reasons; to reduce the product miles of materials and goods, and to make these goods as sustainable as possible. It was also because I wanted to explore just what was left of Britain's heritage in textiles, leather goods and manufacturing.
First process is sketched designs which are then drawn up in aspecification drawings and then a very rough calico sample is made. This is where I hand over to our wonderful sample maker who will translate this into a first prototype, again made in calico, but to exact dimensions, with leather trim, brassware, etc. Any necessary adjustments are made to this and then we move into a final sample in correct materials. This entire process can take between 5 and 10 days per bag. That doesn’t include the actual design of the bag, which takes months in some cases.
The bags are bench-made, the same principle that have been employed by British workshops for many centuries. Preparation, cutting and construction is a mix of hand work and batch making, usually around twenty bags per batch [there are images of this on our blog and social media pages].
SS: Could you talk us through your thirteen piece debut capsule collection?
Adam Atkinson: The collection covers travel and day use, by bicycle, walking, bus, train, car if you must. Laptop and iPad sleeves, some satchels, a workbag, a couple of rucksacks and some holdalls.
The main design principle is simple functionality. Form does follow function. The bags are easy to use, aesthetically correct and the qualities inherent in our raw materials are visible and allowed to speak out. These are modern designs inspired by utilitarian classics and the way such bags are worn and used. Design details are pared to their essence, anything unnecessary is generally removed.
Key pieces for AW11 are the Norwich Satchel; broadly inspired by early C20th military satchels and so named after the acronym used by returning WW1 soldiers [K]Nickers Off Ready When I Come Home. The Black Sail Rucksack; what started as a statement design to define the collection [outdoors inspired, elements of simple function from three or four decades ago, introduction of English horn into the collection] has actually become a great selling style. The Squires Holdall series; three sizes of the same design. You’ll struggle to find a better looking overnight, weekend or travel bag [depending on size you choose], even if I do say so myself.
One thing I can exclusively let Style Salvage in on is that we will be batch serial numbering all Cherchbi production from this collection onwards. Every bag will have an individually hand-stamped number allowing each bag to be traced back to factory, season and batch run.
SS: Where will we be able to pick up the collection?
Adam Atkinson: In the UK, Mr Porter, Fortnum & Mason and Lissom & Muster. In Japan, United Arrows and Everly. In Hong Kong, Kapok.
SS: Finally, how do you see the brand developing over the next couple of years?
Adam Atkinson: The brand started slowly, and it will continue to grow slowly. It will stay true to the original values so I want to ensure the collections continue to appeal to people who share those values. Herdwyck No.10 will always be at the core of the brand, but there will be other product and material concepts introduced; on the table are bicycle friendly styles as is a women's collection and some full leather bags. There are some interesting companies I’d like to collaborate with in some way, discussions are taking place now with a view to things happening in 2012.
Now that I've introduced you to Cherchbi and retold its story with the help of Adam Atkinson, I can now happily share a few shots from the the AW11 look book with you...
Inspired by Britain's creative and cultural heritage, Cherchbi craft modern designs that showcase a robust, traditional quality and feel inherently British. It is the combination of natural materials including, of course the waterproof Herdwyck No. 10 tweed, British saddle leather, brass hardware and one hundred per cent cotton lining, that really gets me excitement. These will all age together harmoniously with use and I for one, am looking forward to testing them out.