It’s that time of year again! Last week I took a trip back to the NEC in Birmingham for the annual trade show BETA international. It was my 5th visit to the show but unlike previous years, this time I wasn’t there to compete in the trainee saddler competition, resulting in a much more relaxing day! This gave me the time to explore the show a bit and see some of the new exciting products that will be launched into the equestrian trade this year.
The highlight for me is always the equestrian fashion show. Being a horse owner and rider myself, it is always interesting to see some of the new styles in equestrian wear but really, it’s just fantastic entertainment watching a group of models performing dance routines in body protectors and riding hats!
I spent most of my time in the Saddlery area which was considerably larger than previous years. It was wonderful to see Saddlery Businesses from all areas of the Saddlery showcasing their skills. One saddler had gone all out to draw in the crowds and made a multi-coloured unicorn saddle, complete with horn! I think it goes without saying that it turned a few heads and showed some incredible creativity and skill.
I also volunteered to demonstrate some stitching skills at the Saddlery Training Centre stand for a few hours. It’s always nice to chat to people who are considering saddlery as a career option.
Last week I also collected my new splitter machine who I have affectionately named Stanley, or “flat Stanley”. For those who aren’t familiar with a splitting machine, the best way to describe it is like a pasta machine but instead of two rollers it has one roller and then a huge blade on top. When a strap of leather is pulled through it splits the substance down (making it flatter…hence the name.) I was lucky enough to get my hands on a really old machine, as a general rule with saddlery tools the older the better! The thing about old tools is the tend to have quirks so Stanley does have the habit of splitting more off the right-hand side than the left. I’ll just have to make some small adjustments but it’s quirks like this that make me love the craft even more. No two pieces are the same and every little piece of leather has had some time put into it!
Every year Saddlers from all over the world flock to Saddlers Hall in London for the annual National Saddlery Competition. This year I was attending to officially receive my certificate of completion for my apprenticeship. It was a really nice way to round off 4 years of hard work. I was also fortunate enough to be awarded a bursary award on completion of my apprenticeship in recognition of my efforts.
Being THE competition in the Saddlery calendar, I also decided to enter a couple of classes. As it was the last year I was able to enter the trainee classes, I though I would make the most of it. I made a stallion inhand bridle for the trainee bridlework class, and then after a last-minute decision, I made a crupper and dock for the trainee harness class the day before I had to post my work (not stressful at all!)
Well it all turned out to be worthwhile as I got second place in the harness class and was given a premium award. Even better then that, my stallion bridle was awarded first place in its class and was also given a premium award. It’s obviously a great feeling to win awards like that but even better when you really feel you’ve earnt it with the hard work and time you’ve put in.
This week has been a slightly stressful week. Part of me thought I shouldn’t blog about it because I feel I shouldn’t be advertising my mistakes. The other side of me feels that everyone makes mistakes and it’s best to admit it and see where you can go next. After all I am only an apprentice and just starting my journey.
This week was the annual National Saddlery Competition at Saddlers Hall in London. I entered a few items this year including the infamous stingray dressage saddle I made for my final saddlery exam, and a double bridle I made for the trainee bridle exam.
I actually had a great result with my saddle being awarded a premium award. Anyone who has chatted to me over the past few months will know just how much stress that saddle has created (the price you pay for trying to make something a bit more creative) so to receive some recognition of my hard work is lovely.
The double bridle I made I was actually very pleased with, which is unusual for me as I’m such a perfectionist and very self-critical. On display with all the other bridles it did look really nice and I have to admit I was a little sad to not receive any award for it but at the end of the day the judges decision is final and there is such a high standard of competition you really have to have something exceptional to do well.
Well the really annoying moment was when I got to score card back to read. The trainee bridlework classes are usually done to a specification, so the item you make has to be to specific measurements. Silly old me had misread one of the measurements, so my reins were too short. The judge seemed more frustrated as me because I had received high marks in every other area, but the fundamental problem was that it didn’t match the specification!
Anyway, I’m trying not to dwell on it, as I said we all make mistakes, but this was a costly one and I’ll be sure to not make the same mistake again!
Yesterday I was back at the NEC in Birmingham to visit the annual BETA international trade show. This was my 4th visit to the show and 3rd time taking part in the trainee Saddler competition put on by the Society of Master Saddlers.
I always have mixed feelings about the competition at BETA. On the one hand I find the whole event a little stressful, but I also feel it’s important to put my work forward for criticism in order to maintain a high standard of work and constantly strive for improvement.
This year we were asked to make a cob sized pair of cheekpieces. We are all given the exact same materials and fittings to ensure its fair and then we are given a specification for the piece we are making. Typically, with cheekpieces you are given a measurement we refer to as the “made-up” measurement. This does not refer to a measurement that you make up from the top of your head but rather the measurement of the piece when it is fully made and stitched together, and the billets (the bottom loop where it attaches to the horse’s bit) will normally be closed.
We kicked off at about 10am and pretty early on it became apparent we were having slightly different approaches. While trying not to go into too much “saddlery speak” there is no set rule for where you place the billet hook regarding the strap. The further you go up the strap the bigger the loop will be around the bit but where exactly you go is a matter of personal preference. In the end I decided to go slightly further up the strap than the other competitors as I feel that if the loop is too tight, it makes it more difficult to do up. While we are always trying to create beautiful items and are desperate to let out our creative flair, items must always be fit for purpose and this should always be the primary concern.
Anyway, I won’t bore you with the rest of the details of the entire process of making a cheekpiece, but we finished and disappeared for a quick explore of the show while the judging commenced. This year they decided that the presentation of the results for the competition would be on the fashion show stage, so we made our ways over to the stage to find some seats.
It came to the results and we were all invited up on stage to receive a certificate for participation and then the announced the winner. To my surprise (which apparently was hilariously visible in my face) I was announced the winner of the competition. It sounds like it was a pretty close call, but the judges informed me that the decider was that the preferred the distance I had chosen for my billet hook – proof that it pays off to go against the crowd!
As if that wasn’t great enough, the winner and runners-up of the Abbey England scholarship award were also announced, and I was overjoyed to hear that I was one of the runners – up and was being awarded a hide of leather in a colour of my choice! Probably sounds terribly boring but to a trainee saddler it doesn’t get much better then that!
I’ve had an action-packed week this week, all starting with a trip to Northampton to attend The Society of Master Saddlers Introductory Saddle Fitting Course. It was a fascinating course, starting with us looking at types of tree and saddle. We were all horrified to be passed some of the worst examples of saddle I have ever seen. Made from totally unsafe materials or just made into shapes that couldn’t possibly fit any living horse!
We then started to look at actually fitting the saddle to horse. The key principles and difficulties you may run into. We started this in a lecture room and then went out to look at some saddles on horses.
We covered a lot from basic saddle fitting, to templating horses and even looked at some basic rider imbalances and how they can affect saddle fitting. There was far too much to cover in just 2 days but it was definitely a good introduction to the principles, and also to make you realise just home many variables there can be. Honestly I found it a little overwhelming and I do a lot of saddle fitting with my apprenticeship but perhaps that is just proof of the importance of properly trained saddle fitters.
Yesterday I attended a fascinating course put on by the Society of Master Saddlers about bridle fitting. Large portions of it I felt were basic knowledge that I feel I had from my pony club days such as where nosebands and browbands should sit and the function of different nosebands but there was also lots of very interesting information.
The part I found really interesting was the detailed look at facial structures with particular attention on the nerves and then considering how anatomical bridles can be used to reduce pressure points on horses.
I also really enjoyed learning about to results of some of the most recent studies on noseband pressure (a hot topic in competition at the moment). I’m looking forward to putting what I’ve learnt into practice, probably starting with a new bridle for my own horse Victor.
Last week I was lucky enough to attend a “Sewing Machine Maintenance” module. Although I don’t own a leather sewing machine at the moment, I do use them from time to time, most often as part of my apprenticeship.
Although I am trained to hand stitch and I am a strong believer of hand stitching being better than machine stitching, I believe there is also a place for machine stitching in the saddlery industry and its important to have these skills. It was a really informative course, covering all areas of machine maintenance and also information about the different types of machines available and how they can be adapted for use.
To be honest, the best part for me was the location. The course was held at the Vale Brothers factory which is a big saddlery factory in the heart of Walsall (the home of English saddlery.) As an apprentice I have visited a few saddlery factories and worked occasionally in one, so I am familiar with the general form but it’s still fun to see new places.
Saddlery factories are not as high tech as people may think. Compared to my training and experience of smaller saddlery businesses, the factories have all sorts of genius machines and equipment but the do still require a lot of man power and many things are still assembled by hand.
The most depressing thing for me however, is seeing a machine do a job that I’ve spent the past 3 years perfecting, so effortlessly and far quicker than I could ever do it. For example, they have a type of computerised sewing machine that can stitch decorative patterns onto leatherwork in a matter of seconds when the same job would take me half an hour! I have to remind myself that there is a place for both, mass production from factories gives a wider range of people access to leatherwork at more affordable prices, but hand made and hand stitched work will always give a higher quality of item.
Last week I was a competitor in the trainee saddler competition at the BETA international trade show. This was the second time I’ve agree to take part and after the event I am always glad I went but I’ve got to be honest, I tend to find the day rather stressful. I am very comfortable working when tucked away in my little workshop but the atmosphere at BETA is a little different. The competition is usually run at a workbench in the centre of the exhibition hall, within the Saddlery area, with just a rope surrounding us so that anyone passing by can look at what we are doing. Some people will just walk past and glance in our direction, but others like to come right over and watch, ask questions and even take pictures. I find it all a bit intimidating and on top of all that we are supposed to be competing!
Luckily, we are all in the same boat and being quite a small trade, I know most of my fellow trainees fairly well and it tends to be more of a supportive atmosphere than competitive! This year we were asked to make a raised noseband, but to our horror we were informed we would have to stitch it in white! Now I will admit, I think bridlework stitched in white thread looks beautiful, but I’m not sure people understand the amount of extra work that goes into stitching with white thread compared to black or brown. Firstly, because white thread is such a contrast it really highlights each stitch, and therefore highlights EVERY imperfection. This means there is more pressure to get every stitch perfect or it will stick out like a sore thumb! Also, when working with leather we also have to stain the edges we have cut and as the name suggests, it will stain anything it touches. So, the thought of trying to keep white thread clean and get the stitches perfect, all while trying to compete for first place had a few of us sweating before we even started!
Thankfully we all finished within the time and without any major injuries or breakdowns! I didn’t envy the judges this year as when the pieces were all laid out on the bench, we could barely recognise which one was our own. Anyway, they were able to come to a decision and I was excited to learn I was awarded the runner-up award. It must have been so close to judge as I think there was only 1 mark difference between 1st -2nd place and 2nd-3rd place. It’s great to think that there is such a consistent standard of work amongst the trainee saddlers, after all, we are the future of the trade!
This week was a really exciting week. We went down to London for the National Saddlery Competition. The main reason for my attendance was to collect my portfolio as the official recognition of me starting my apprenticeship. I also decided to enter a couple of classes – it is a competition after all!
The exciting twist to this year’s competition was that The Princess Royal was attending and handing out the portfolios. Her Royal Highness is in fact the Master of the Worshipful Company of Saddlers’ and has attended a few of the competitions over the year.
Well this had obviously had an impact on the number of entries (an entry in the competition is the only way to guarantee a ticket to the event) as the hall was packed with both people and entries.
I entered the master and apprentice class where I had to make a breastplate and then my master made a martingale attachment to add to it. I also entered the trainee bridlework class which was an inhand stallion bridle. Fortunately, I recently completed my final bridle making exam and one of the exam pieces was an inhand stallion bridle, so I just entered my exam piece.
Although I didn’t place in either class, I was awarded premium awards for both my entries. Premium awards are given to pieces of work that are of an exceptional standard so as far as I am concerned that is still an achievement and encouragement that my work is heading in the right direction.
Well this week was an exciting week. My first trip (hopefully not the last) to The National Saddlery Competition. The competition is run by The Society of Master Saddlers and hosted by the Worshipful Company of Saddlers at Saddlers’ Hall, London.
Well my first experience of Saddlers’ Hall was not a disappointment. It’s a beautiful building with some incredible features but the highlight was definitely seeing the work on display made by some incredibly talented saddlers.
I, along with all of my college classmates, had entered one of the most basic trainee saddlery classes. There was a specification for this which was to make a headcollar conforming to the Level 2 bridlework assessment.
I was thrilled to learn that I had been awarded a premium award for my entry. These awards are given to work that are considered to be of an exceptional standard.