Leather manufacture remained medieval longer

The Redwood Blog
Published:  29 July, 2014
Mike Redwood

Ann Simmons, an influential Leather Naturally! supporter from the USA tweeted a link to a photo article in WhoWhatWear "How To Wear Leather In Hot Weather (It Can Be Done)" by Nicole Kleist. Ms Kleist has a great understanding of leather and she gave herself a big challenge here. www.whowhatwear.com/hot-weather-clothing

Perhaps cropped trousers and backless dresses might work in certain, not too extreme, climates but the leather vest over a flirty mini-dress, in the right climate, was perhaps the only real winner. Not Nicole's fault but rather the tanner who has more to do. Have we really made any strides in developing clothing leather since we worked out how to shave to "shirting" weights in the 1970s?

Stuck in the past

Clothing leather has been pushed very much into the fashion segment with the development of advanced textiles, which appear to have solved the world's problems in terms of protection against cold and wet as well as perspiration management technologies. Did leather ever fight back?

If you are wondering just think about Sir Humphrey Davy, David Macbride, Armand Seguin, Samuel Parker and Seth Boyden. They were identified by historian Peter Welsh as great scientists and engineers that tried, around the end of the 18th century, to bring some chemical and mechanical advancement to the leather making process. In a paper entitled "a craft that resisted change" Welsh made the point that for nearly all of the 19th century, certainly until 1880, "tanners largely shunned any attempt to replace manual labour with machinery". Welsh was mostly complaining about the US industry but looking at longer windows of time the rest of the world does not show up much better. He felt that the over abundance of wood, water, lime and hides with a "seemingly unlimited amount of bark" impeded the rapid adoption of new chemistry and labour efficiency. He concluded that making leather "retained its medieval pattern far longer than any than other basic industry". Compared to Ford, du Pont, Carnegie or Colt leather was an industrial disaster.

We did not impress Welsh with our slow progress in the 19th century, and although the 20th century was better it is hard to imagine that in the second decade of the 21st century we still tan in drums and we cannot even make really lightweight cool garment leather. Making Nicole Kleist's writing life easier with higher performance fashion leather should not be beyond our capability. Natural looking, as well please; not just more layers of black pigment.

Tip: Wear a leather vest over a flirty mini-dress. Photo credit: Vanessa Jackman

Mike Redwood

mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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