William Shakespeare knew about leather

Redwood Comment
Published:  27 April, 2016
Mike Redwood

We have just celebrated the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. It is a useful moment to highlight how important leather has been in history, and the neat balance between its functional and its aesthetic properties.

Throughout the history of society not much could have happened if we had not had hides and skins as a large strong sheet material. There was no fossil fuel based plastic to use, and not even any woven textiles for a very long time. So if you needed clothing for warmth, or did not have trees or a cave for shelter, you had to use hides and skins; preferably tanned with some smoke, brains, oil, alum or vegetable tannin. 

Equally, if you really did not have many trees you needed hides to make boats, and hides and skins were pretty useful for carrying water and wine. So as you looked at all the technical systems like transportation, agricultural industries, warfare and even writing leather and parchment were central to being able to get things done. Society required the functional capabilities of leather yet, at the same time, the rarest colours and best types came under the control of the rich and powerful.

Leather was truly ubiquitous. Perhaps that is why today we take it for granted, and even why we have been poor at marketing it over these past few decades. Shakespeare knew this. His father was a glover, and tanned deer and other skins with alum, hence, he was called a white-tawer - making gloves in a small workshop which has been recreated in Stratford-upon-Avon. History suggests that glovers sometimes also made other articles such as purses and jackets, so it was likely that along with his four competitors in the town at that time his father made a wide range of products beyond gloves.

In his writing, Shakespeare talks routinely with clear knowledge about glove leathers from calf, kid and dogskin. He mentions equipment used to make leather level and soft, and discusses writing on parchment.

Perhaps just as significant as all this knowledge which flowed naturally from his family background, Shakespeare based Shylock on the Queen's doctor, the Portuguese Roderigo Lopez, who was given exclusive rights to import sumac as a tanning material. With otherwise only oak being used in the UK, sumac offered a welcome alternative in both colour and feel. Every load imported was overseen by two local experts so that an understanding of the technology could quickly be gained.

When light leathers such as goat skins were tanned with sumac, the skins were sewn together into a bag, filled with tanning liquor and placed in a "sumac tub", where lots of skins would be stirred by hand with a wooden paddle. Warm liquor accelerated penetration.

Looking at all this leads to two important lessons. First, when searching for innovations we should not ignore old technology. Many of the long forgotten technologies deserve re-examination with a view to reconfiguring in a contemporary setting; just as chrome tanning did not work until James Kent's fatliquoring ideas from Dongola were transferred across.

Equally with content, an essential element in any serious marketing programme, we should not forget that great businesses need not just good scientists, but also graduates of the arts to bring a creative and articulate edge to all communications.

Mike Redwood

mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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