Longevity in leather

The Redwood Blog
Published:  12 May, 2015
Mike Redwood

If you have been strong enough to stick with this column for the best part of the last two years you will know that I do not see leather as suited for throw away products. Quite apart from its value as a renewable resource leather is truly remarkable because of its longevity. Many products wear out a long time before the leather. Problems with zips, metal clasps and stitching arise far more often than leather problems. You could argue that if leather articles are thrown away shortly after purchase a design error has been made. 

Last week I had to consider the other end of this wonderful equation. For about ten years I have been a Trustee of the UK Leather Conservation Centre, a quite unique body set up many years ago to conserve leather articles of antiquity. Every year they run a number of courses for conservationists from around the world and it was one of these that I joined last week. 

It soon became clear that for items made before 1900, even hundreds of years before, we can quickly identify the leather type and the experts know how to deal with them. So for such items the outcome of conservation, or restoration (these are two different things) totally depends on the state of the article and the training of the conservator.

Yet nowadays articles much younger than a hundred years are turning up needing conservation. Upholstery on highly valued classic automobiles is typical, along with some exquisite furniture and quality leather goods. This creates problems both in the non-destructive checking of the tannage and knowing what is in the finish. Tanning, retanning and fatliquoring and then leather finishing have all advanced very rapidly in the 20th century and not always very wisely for long-term usage. One of the first leathers our group had to work on was a red automobile upholstery with a loose finish that was breaking up.

So two issues arise. How do we as an industry help colleagues who conserve valuable leather artefacts to manage the complex and ever changing leathers we produced through the 20th century? More importantly are we confident that when we make leathers today we are thinking in terms of items that will last a long time and are likely not just to be conserved in the future but will be repaired on their journey into antiquity?

It would be a dreadful thought that parts of our industry are deliberately making leathers where either the finish or the whole leather will not last very long.

Last week I had to consider the other end of this wonderful equation. For about ten years I have been a Trustee of the UK Leather Conservation Centre, a quite unique body set up many years ago to conserve leather articles of antiquity. Every year they run a number of courses for conservationists from around the world and it was one of these that I joined last week. 

It soon became clear that for items made before 1900, even hundreds of years before, we can quickly identify the leather type and the experts know how to deal with them. So for such items the outcome of conservation, or restoration (these are two different things) totally depends on the state of the article and the training of the conservator.

Yet nowadays articles much younger than a hundred years are turning up needing conservation. Upholstery on highly valued classic automobiles is typical, along with some exquisite furniture and quality leather goods. This creates problems both in the non-destructive checking of the tannage and knowing what is in the finish. Tanning, retanning and fatliquoring and then leather finishing have all advanced very rapidly in the 20th century and not always very wisely for long-term usage. One of the first leathers our group had to work on was a red automobile upholstery with a loose finish that was breaking up.

So two issues arise. How do we as an industry help colleagues who conserve valuable leather artefacts to manage the complex and ever changing leathers we produced through the 20th century? More importantly are we confident that when we make leathers today we are thinking in terms of items that will last a long time and are likely not just to be conserved in the future but will be repaired on their journey into antiquity?

Leather conservation training

It would be a dreadful thought that parts of our industry are deliberately making leathers where either the finish or the whole leather will not last very long.

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Mike Redwood

mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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