The Shetland Tannery: Making a success from sheepskins

Since its inception in October 2012, the Shetland Islands only tannery has continued to grow following increasing demand from overseas. Co-founder Natalie Cairns-Ratter told BQ how she got the business off the ground alongside her husband Tom Ratter.

The Shetland Tannery is a small tannery based in Ollaberry, in the North of Shetland, and is run by husband and wife team Natalie and Tom.

The islands are renowned for sheep-rearing making it a lucrative market for the knitwear industry in particular.

This led Natalie and Tom into launching the business and they have never looked back as the business continues to go from strength-to-strength.

Natalie told BQ: “At The Shetland Tannery, we handcraft sheepskins, cowhides, goatskins and cow horns from Shetland Native breeds.

“We hand finish all of our products from sheepskins to slippers and accessories. We sell our products from our workshop on Shetland and also ship to across the world from our website.

“Every order we receive is tailored to our customers needs, anything bespoke we are willing to try!”

Speaking about what inspired them to start up, she added: “We had an abundance of animal by products being seen as waste on our island and no outlet.

“So we saw a niche for our company and a gap in the market and wanted to turn these waste products into high quality goods that had been born and raised on Shetland.”

The duo decided to launch the business and started off by self-funding the project to begin with.

“We self funded our project from the beginning, as we did a lot of market research and product development and wanted to make sure there was a place for us in the market. So it has always been important to our company to grow steadily without massive amounts of debt.

“We approached business gateway who are still very supportive of our business, and paired us with a fantastic advisor who has knowledge of animal health industry, so it was important to have someone understand our vision and help us nurture our business.

“In addition our local animal health office were brilliant in advising what we needed to do to start up. Also the leather industry in the UK is such a small industry, but has been so supportive every step of the way too.”

As the duo have continued to experiment with products and increase their offering, they have had a couple of bumps along the way.

She said: “Our biggest challenge has been starting the business. You cannot prepare yourself until you actually experience it, and it has been a massive learning curve.

“As we are responsible from the accounts; to marketing; to production and to being the face and identity of the company, it has been hard to multi task, but it has got easier now we have been trading almost two years.

“However even though it has been hard at times, we love having our business and the rewards far outweigh the hard times!”

Going forward, the duo are looking to build on their early success which has already seen them export their products across the globe.

“Our next big target is to re brand, as we want to polish our branding to reflect our products better. Also we are planning to build a bigger retail space.

“The Shetland Tannery is different as we are the only tannery on Shetland and nobody was using the waste materials produced by our meat industry.

“Not only do we want to expand our brand nationwide, but we want to extend our leather product range to produce salmon skin leather, which is not currently being produced in the UK.”

Alongside tanning local sheepskins, goatskins and Shetland cow horns, the new range they are looking to introduce will also include finished cowhides and handcraft sheepskin slippers, cushions and rugs.

BQ  will continue to follow the couples story as the Shetland Tannery continues to grow its presence in the industry.