Deborah Thomas: ‘Start small and collaborate where you can’

Deborah Thomas of DOE leather

Deborah Thomas - Credit: Christina Wilson

The Suffolk countryside near Framlingham, where Deborah Thomas lives, is a world away from the harsh poverty faced by refugees fleeing war-torn countries as they seek a new life in the UK. 

Woodland and forest, small villages and beaches, are the antithesis of the suffering of those escaping Afghanistan or conflict in the Middle East. 

But through the activities of a group of caring individuals, help is at hand to offer support and add some comfort as the refugees arrive on these shores, and make their way on a journey toward a more certain future. 

Deborah Thomas

Deborah Thomas - Credit: Christina Wilson

Deborah, who runs luxury leatherware business DOE, is acutely aware of the contrast to life in Suffolk but is determined to cross that divide by helping in any way she can as a member of a refugee support group. 

In addition, she also finds a connection to a slower, traditional, more sustainable way of life, through her business and collaboration with other local businesswomen to stage Orford Slow Living Market. 

With a love of the countryside, of Irish literature from her time living in Dublin, and artisan crafts, Deborah is a firm believer in trying to make even small differences count. 

Refugee support 

Most Read

Away from her business, Deborah's refugee work supporting camps in France with aid and helping those arriving in this country, is an important focus for her.

It saw the formation of Friends of Refugees Suffolk (FORS), which traces its origins to the Brexit vote of 2016. 

“A group of us found the Brexit vote quite difficult and disliked the way there was a racist tone creeping in,” she says.  

At around the same time, her husband Fraser showed her a newspaper article about a group of Londoners restoring and equipping old caravans and towing them to the Jungle Camp in Calais for refugee families to shelter in. 

Painting a caravan for refugee support

Painting a caravan for refugee support - Credit: Contributed

From there, they made contact with ex-policeman Tony Britten who ran a charity called Jungle Canopy and invited them to join his next convoy to Calais and offered guidance on how to get into the camp and best deliver aid. 

FORS raised funds to restore two caravans which they filled with food, clothing, toiletries, kitchen equipment, bedding, and after a departure party and barbecue in a field in Kettleburgh, they set off for Calais. 

“The goodwill was incredible,” says Deborah. “After that we continued to gather aid for the camp, raised money through events such as feasts and sponsored walks, and held sewing groups to make fleece ponchos.” 

When the Jungle Camp was destroyed their efforts went into supplying grassroots charities in Paris and the woods around Calais, where people were gathering and sleeping rough.  

She adds: "I have a simple message – put yourself in their shoes, if your family was starving or being persecuted would you not try and get them out? It is about seeing people as human beings and helping where you can.” 

Afghan relocation 

More recently FORS has been working with Suffolk Refugee Support in Ipswich to produce welcome packs with food, toiletries and cleaning products, for people arriving in the UK from Afghanistan under the ARAP (Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy) scheme. 

“They are for people who worked in Afghanistan for the British government,” she explains. “Many were interpreters and now in danger. We have and heard many heart-breaking stories and they are very fearful that the family members left behind are now being hunted down by the Taliban.” 

In Orford Town Hall last September, they raised £5,000 from a dinner which went towards the welcome packs and hope to do more fund-raising in the near future.

Deborah and her dad

Deborah and her dad - Credit: Emma Lewis Photography

Leather tannery 

Born and raised in Northamptonshire – the home of the shoe industry where her family’s tannery business was based - Deborah has been in Suffolk for 21 years after previously living in London and Dublin. 

Her leatherware business was inspired by her background and draws on the family heritage. 

“Our family tannery crest had a stag on it. I took that and made it the female version because my family business was totally male dominated. My great-great grandfather William Pearce started it in 1908 and it has been all men from the family involved until I came along and put my own twist on things.” 

W. Pearce and Co first produced leather linings for shoes and hats before moving to a purpose-built, and now Grade Two listed, Art Deco factory on the outskirts of Northampton. 

DOE accessories

DOE accessories - Credit: Keiko Oikawa

DOE products

DOE products - Credit: Keiko Oikawa

“From my childhood, I have strong memories of holiday jobs in the tannery in the beautiful art deco building my great-great grandfather built,” she says.

The outbreak of WW1 saw the company supplying sheepskin jacket linings for the troops before the post-war focus hanged to creating special effects such as reptile and ostrich prints. 

With the largest collection of embossing plates in the world, the reputation of W. Pearce and Co reached international markets and it was twice awarded the Queen’s Award for Export. 

After studying sociology at Nottingham University, Deborah initially worked for accessory companies, but when the tannery closed in 2002, she and her father rescued the company swatch books (taken around by salesmen to customers) and several master patterns dating back to the 1920s and gave them a new lease of life within her own business. 

“With my background and this fortuitous discovery of this incredible collection of patterns and swatches, I decided to do something with beautifully printed leather.” 

Deborah Thomas in her studio

Deborah in her studio - Credit: Sarah Weal

Design studio 

The result was DOE, founded in 2013, which makes leather bags and accessories using fine vegetable-tanned bridle leather. 

“Bridle leather is a finer version of saddle leather and the most durable and luxurious leather you can buy,” Deborah explains. “It is the ultimate slow process and bridle leather takes four years to tan instead of most leather which is produced in toxic tanneries using chromium and other chemicals. 

“Not many people use bridle leather because it is expensive but it is hand-waxed and a slow process to tan it so it wears beautifully. 

She has her design studio in Suffolk, with one young part-time leather worker, but for the items that require machinery, Deborah works with a traditional family-run factory in the West Midlands with highly-skilled craftsmen who specialise in leather use. 

Her business has grown over the last few years, with products sold in Selfridges and other boutiques around the country, but she has hopes of expanding. 

Committed to sustainable practices in terms of recycling and avoiding unnecessary waste, DOE has a product range including homewares, bags, belts, small leather wallets and purses, coasters, boxes and trays, pen pots, desk mats and mouse mats. 

The Slow Living Market Orford committee

The Slow Living Market Orford committee: Jo Brennan, Jess Quinton, Deborah Thomas and Fiona Petheram - Credit: Keiko Oikawa

Slow living 

This ethos of traditional techniques to produce high quality items has seen Deborah add another dimension to her interests and establish the Orford Slow Living Market, which was inspired after exhibiting alongside other sustainable businesses at a similar event in London. 

“They had strict criteria on provenance of items being sold and that gave me the idea of creating something similar in Suffolk,” she says.

Having approached three women who live locally whose businesses she admires - Joanna Brennan co-founder of Pump Street Bakery in Orford; Jess Quinton from knitwear company called Quinton + Chadwick; and Fiona Petheram from Drift Jewellery – together they founded the Slow Living Market Orford in 2016. 

“We ask that all participants to demonstrate a strong connection to their craft and businesses need to be as sustainable as possible whether zero waste, recycled materials or packaging and small batch. 

“People come to the markets because they love buying beautiful things, but the person behind the stand can also talk with great experience and authority about the pieces, how they are made and every part of the design and production process.” 

The market, held in the autumn in Orford Town Hall, has 16 to 18 specialist exhibitors with each given the space to sell their wares, and also to demonstrate how they are made and offer visitors the opportunity to try techniques. 

“I have my leather tools out so people have a go at stitching or staining, others like with Pump Street Bakery can demonstrate chocolate making and where their beans are from for the chocolate making process. It is really that connection with craft that we are trying to promote,” she added. 

Two dogs, three children 

Deborah and Fraser live at Kettleburgh near Framlingham, with their two dogs and have three grown-up children: Felix, 27, is on a boat building apprenticeship in New Zealand and have not seen for two years because of Covid and travel restrictions; daughter Nell, 24, works in Valencia; and Imogen, 21, is studying English and Film at Exeter University. 

A massive dog lover, Deborah says: “We have a Jack Russell cross and a Spaniel-Labrador cross. They keep us walking and we would not be without them. 

“We live in such beautiful surroundings, with the forest, the beach and lovely countryside around Kettleburgh and love being in nature and outside in all weathers. 

“I also love to read. I do a lot of reading and love short stories. Some of my favourite authors are Irish from my time in Ireland – such as William Trevor, Colm Toibin, and Ann Enright. Being there gave me a real taste for their literature. 

“I also belong to a book club, which has introduced me to a more varied selection; maybe I’d be narrower in my taste if not for the book club!” 

Another hobby is going out on their little red sailing boat for picnics with friends and the dogs to Orford Ness. 

Making a difference 

Whether it is supporting refugees, or championing traditional craft-making and techniques, Deborah believes both are helping make a difference. 

“From the refugee perspective, it is incredibly rewarding to even be making a tiny difference to a few lives,” she said. “Hearing stories about other people’s lives, it breaks you out of your small rural Suffolk world. 

“It is heart-warming to be working alongside such good-hearted people, the goodwill has mostly been incredible and it reminds you of the good in people.” 

“With the Slow Living Market, it is helping to promote and preserve traditional crafts, and encouraging people to buy better and buy less in the face of a planet that is going to be struggling ever more. 

“It is important we think about where our things come from and how they are made and try to curb the throwaway mentality that has crept in. That is very rewarding in a different way. 

“The refugees work is probably the most meaningful but the Orford Slow Living Market and what we do there has a place as well. It encourages support for makers but also our visitors really enjoy learning about what we do. It is hopefully promoting some curiosity so gets people asking questions. 

“With the supporters of the initiatives I’m involved in, I think it’s their wanting to make a difference - to the lives of displaced people, to supporting small business rather than big chains, and preserving craft and traditional skills.”,