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Skyeskyns

Rooted in its island landscape, Skyeskyns takes a caring and sustainable approach to the environment.

Products made with care for quality and sustainability

Established in 1983, in the coastal village of Waternish on the Isle of Skye, Skyeskyns is now the sole remaining commercial woolskin tannery in Scotland. 

Created and developed by Clive and Lydia Hartwell, the second generation of the Hartwell family is today steering the business through the 21st Century. It produces and stocks high quality, hand-crafted sheepskins and other sustainably made woollen clothing and home accessories.

What began as a small crofting diversification project has grown into something much bigger, but its ethos of looking after the land and its resources, and always choosing to ‘tread lightly’, continues to define the choices that the business makes daily.

“It’s impossible to live and work somewhere as beautiful as Waternish and not feel responsible for doing your bit to take care of the environment around you.
Dave Till, general manager, Skyeskyns
Becky Hanley 2 Skyeskyns

Skyeskyns and the environment

Skyeskyns is rooted in the island landscape of Skye and does all it can to demonstrate its caring and sustainable approach to the environment and its natural resources. 

It is delivering this ethos in a variety of ways:

    • Its skins are sourced in the Highlands, keeping transport miles to a minimum and ensuring that all the animal is being used, preventing skins from being exported overseas and keeping the money in the local economy.
    • In 2019 after successful trials, Skyeskyns moved away from using an extractive and finite mineral resource for tanning to using mimosa bark.

    • The company recycles at every opportunity: this includes recycling good quality cardboard boxes from suppliers and using them to parcel up customer orders; minimising printing; and re-using scrap paper and wrappings in the office and post room. Where plastic packaging is used, it is biodegradable, and the café/shop use compostable take-away cups – while also sourcing local produce.

    • The business uses green electricity suppliers at both its tannery and vistor centre/shop. They use a lot of hot water at tannery, and a new energy-efficient gas boiler installed recently, which will be augmented by solar panels. They have also installed an electric car charging point just outside the tannery in Waternish, which is used by locals and visitors alike, and have invested in an electric van for moving stock between the tannery and the shop in Portree.

 

How the business achieved its innovate approach to environmental change

In 2018, the family identified a more environmentally friendly process by switching from mineral-based tanning process to a plant-based process known as veg tan which uses mimosa bark. This change would also lead to an increase in production and business growth. The business turned to HIE for support.  

We were already working with Skyeskyns to identify growth opportunities. Thy had a dedicated account manager, who introduced them to HIE's innovation support. 

The business needed access to specialist expertise, and time to conduct extensive testing with tanning mixes, to ensure product quality was maintained before entering the commercial environment. Working through this process took the business a year. 

What kind of support did Skyeskyns benefit from? 

Skyeskyns received research funding which enabled the tanners to contact experts for specific knowledge – including invaluable input from the Northampton Institute of Creative Leather Technology. 

 

 

The main driver for making the change was the environmental impact, but the cost benefits were a bonus.
Dave Till, Skyeskyns

The Impacts

Switching to veg tan has resulted in a more efficient effluent system. With the mineral process, the waste sediment had to be reduced to cake form and shipped by specialist hauliers for safe re-processing. Because of the businesses remote location, this system cost £8,000.

Now, the effluent is drained through a reed bed and the sediment is used as fertiliser, creating a highly efficient circular economy. And because considerably less water passes through the sediment tanks, it means faster turnaround, facilitating increased production.

Veg tan produces a different finish – while it preserves the colour of the wool, the leather is softer, more flexible, and a natural, creamy brown colour, rather than the whitish result created by the previous mineral processes.

Skyeskyns products are machine washable – their innovative processing ensures that the tan doesn’t wash out of the leather; it retains its soft, supple character and preservative properties, and is protected from hardening and deterioration.

Diligence and hard work eventually achieved the optimum balance essential to maintain the high standards of product quality and functionality.

From Dave’s perspective, the experience of working with HIE's innovation team has been invaluable:

“It enabled us to be very thorough in our testing, and gave us the space to get the results we wanted before taking on the commercial pressures. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend contacting the Innovation team," he said.

Becky Hanley Skyeskyns

Preserving traditional skills

Skyeskyns is proud to uphold an age-old craft and to share it with younger generations and visitors to the tannery every day.

They are a growing business, currently employing 22 people (16FTE). The business offers flexible employment opportunities to local and young people across a range of disciplines -including retail, sales or marketing.

The tanning industry across the UK is characterised by an aging workforce, but Skyeskyns is fortunate to have relatively young and female, tanner, Becky Hanley, who has developed into the role having worked with the business for a number of years.

Becky, who runs a local croft with her husband, started with Skyeskyns in the sales department, but became interested in the tanning process, and was trained in all aspects of the traditional craft of tanning by her predecessor.

 

People planting trees

Planting trees on the journey to carbon neutral

When Skyeskyns changed its tanning method to use the more sustainable mimosa bark, it was part of an ambition that this should form part of a wider strategy to increase the long-term sustainability of the business.

The next stage sees steps taken to minimise the carbon footprint of the business and help in local and Scottish tree planting efforts, by using the family croft to create a woodland. This will help offset the emissions produced by visitors and take the business closer to a carbon-neutral position in the coming years.

As tree bark is used in then tanning, a planting project is seen as a natural evolution and will bring the whole process full circle in full harmony with the environment.

Skyeskyns plans to start using the land immediately next to the tannery building in Waternish as an initial plantation site. This will start in 2021 and continue over several years, focusing on native species which are appreciated by local wildlife. Over the years, as the woodland grows and a more diverse natural habitat begins to flourish, visitors to Skyeskyns will be able to enjoy it too.

“We are always looking at ways to squeeze carbon out of things, out of the process and out of our business. By ensuring our operations are as efficient as possible, and by making green choices in terms of energy and suppliers, we have continued to improve the sustainability of our business in recent years.”
Dave Till, Skyeskyns

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