Published: May 31, 2012

Sheepskin bag supply just fine, contrary to media reports

A recent news story on Scotsman.com may have created a stir with pipers who read it, but the article got important points wrong, especially when it insinuated that makers of sheepskin pipe bags would be hard-pressed to find quality skins and that China would even start producing cheap pipe bags of inferior quality.

The demise of British fellmongers – the craftsmen who de-fleece, de-grease and “pickle” sheepskins before they go to the final tanning process – has resulted in the last business closing down, with Chinese-based operations taking over.

“The British fellmonger was costing £20 per person per hour as opposed to just £1 per person per hour in China,” said Keith Bowes of Bowes Bags Ltd. of Renfrew, Scotland, one of the world’s top makers of natural pipe bags. “This now means British sheep are being sent to China to the fellmonger before being processed for the clothing market.”

Bowes said that Chinese fellmongers deal in up to a quarter-million pelts every day, and the pipe bag market requires only a few hundred skins each month.

Bowes said that the company that ran the last UK-based fellmonger has outsourced the work to a China-based company and will continue to supply the market for Highland pipe bags. He added that the cost of shipping may impact traditional pipe bag makers, and Bowes is looking at various alternatives, including goatskin, which would not come from the UK but from the country of the goat’s origin.

“I am currently using my last batch of sheepskin, but actively looking for an alternative supply of pickled pelts, including getting pelts shipped back from China to be tanned,” he said. “A few bag makers have [discussed] and we might share shipping costs but still work independently.”

He added that he is currently also testing a different type of sheepskin, which is “working well.”

A sheepskin pipe bag from Bowes is priced at £180 and lasts about two years when played regularly.

With fellmongers producing cheaper pre-tanned skins, the question of whether cost-savings will be passed along to pipers. “The extra shipping will be a bit more expensive, but hopefully not very much,” Bowes responded. “A lot will depend on the numbers ordered – we talk in dozens and the fellmongers talk in tens-of-thousands.”

In the last decade, sheepskin pipe bags have enjoyed resurgence in popularity after many years of synthetic pipe bags taking over the market. Recent surveys of Grade 1 pipe bands and top-tier solo pipers show a trend towards natural skins, with more than half of the world’s Grade 1 pipe sections and about 27 per cent of soloists using sheepskin bags.

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