The search for efficiencies has always been relevant to the leather industry and such improvements as long tongs, poles with hooks and cross beams with string hangers meant workers in the middle ages could work in pits without having to spend long periods standing in them. More recently, through-feed sammying, conditioning and staking, coating and finishing equipment are a few areas where improved efficiency has steadily made tanneries safer and more scientific workplaces. The reduction in work based accidents and the improvement in quality control have been two of the most significant changes we have enjoyed in leather making over the last fifty years of change. No longer do we have to see a splitter prove his seniority by displaying a hand with a piece of finger missing.

While these sort of improvements must continue, there is another side. Leather is a natural material and its value comes from the way it used to craft the articles consumers buy. Be it a handbag, an automobile, a desktop, a pair of shoes or gloves, or a beautiful coat, the final value combines with quality of the manufacture and the skill which has been employed. Normally, this skill involves quite a lot of individual work by hand where speed is subsidiary to the perfection involved. It is an area where we do not want to introduce the modern concepts of enhanced productivity.

In the leather industry, rather than trying to eliminate this work, we celebrate it. The knowledge and capabilities involved require experience and training, with an understanding and sympathy for the material united with technical competence with the tools of the job. This is good employment to be celebrated and encouraged; we need more, and more people enjoying working with leather and making a living from it. Most will do reasonably well and learn useful skills, while a few will be spectacularly successful and have the opportunity to grow into a major brand employing many others. Yet, we have to recognise that it is a different type of economic growth than we have come used to since the industrial revolution. Efficiency, intensification and “sweating assets” are not ignored, but we add an artistic touch to leather which makes it a better experience, more perfect for the consumer, more likely to be kept longer and more likely to be repaired. Most of all, it is more likely to be worth more at the point of purchase and valued more through its life, stopping leather from falling into the disposable commodity trap that comes with modern consumerism.

Skilled work of hand and eye is not exclusively a matter for leather users and still has relevance in tanneries where the artistry in making leather with the appropriate touch and look is as important as its performance characteristics. Be it a traditional vegetable tanned leather or a modern feather-weight nappa, we need to be sympathetic to the origin and character of the skin and correctly balance our inputs of science and art.

Equally, we must remember that a desire for craft and tradition does not permit us to run tanneries that are careless with water, energy, chemicals, waste or peoples’ safety. The Choura Tannery in the Medina in Fez is not evidence of traditional leather making at all, but of dirty, dangerous and inefficient production by a careless mix of ancient and modern methods in an unsafe work environment. Filth is not traditional. There is no reason why the city could not replace it with a smaller, safe demonstration tannery and make the bulk leathers for the City’s artisans elsewhere. That would be progress and would improve both incomes and health.

Mike Redwood
November 11, 2020

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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