In Japan “kintsugi” is in fact two words “kin” – golden and “tsugi” – joinery, or repair. True to Japanese words it has multiple meanings and over centuries has become the foundations of a way of thinking that accepts and celebrates imperfection while avoiding – or as the Japanese would say “regretting” – waste.
Yuko Nishimura, a Japanese professor of anthropology, notes that often the repaired item is more valuable than the original. “Japanese kintsugi exactly expresses the concept of durability as well as the beauty of imperfection”.
The wider leather industry has only recently begun to write and talk extensively about longevity, durability and repair of leather items despite these precise elements being the foundations of the circular economy initially laid out in 1982.
Waste not, want not – habits of previous generations can shape our future.
As Leather Naturally put it in a recent post that is well worth reading “Waste not, want not – habits of previous generations can shape our future” right up until quite recent times leather items goods were rarely discarded, and often passed through the generations. They were repaired and repurposed if this was impossible.
The patina that develops with leather is something that involves more than simple polishing with hands or clothing over time. Darkening with exposure to sunlight, stretching through being overloaded in some way, accidental staining from the ring of a coffee cup on a notebook cover, a spill from a water bottle leaking in a briefcase, the marks of a rainstorm on a pair of shoes or a tear from a gate or a fence in a coat. Our language is about restoring and repairing and for many that is enough. We have many repaired items found in ancient Roman excavations and elsewhere that testify that maintaining functionality while hiding the repair has been enough for most of us.
Yet leather is about beauty as much as utility and carries with it that much ignored aspect of the well-being benefit of coming from nature. Perhaps it is time to think of the continuity of leather and the repair of items in a new light.
The gold used in kintsugi celebrates the damage
The term kintsugi appeared six hundred years ago when a Japanese Shogun broke a pottery cup, he used for the tea ceremony. Instead of purchasing a replacement he sent it back to China for repair. It was returned held together by ugly and ineffective metal ties.
The disappointed Shogan asked a local craftsman to see if he could do better, and the artisan decided to fuse the pieces together using urushi lacquer and powdered gold. The curing of the lacquer, from an indigenous tree, took some months and was an ancient technique found in both Japan and China. The gold celebrated the damage caused by the accident and recognised the change in circumstances for the piece, but also created a totally unique piece with exceptional beauty.
Recognising that in most uses the leather itself rarely wears out should we consider durability and the repairable leather item as the new prototype of luxury?
Part of the Japanese thinking was a fight for simplicity and a rebellion against opulence and luxury as it appeared in 15thand 16th centuries. Looking for simple items marked through events and time, like an old leather club chair that carries its history in the comfortable away it has managed to absorb scratches and stains over decades of use. When Cotance asked its speakers at a conference to name their favourite leather items it was a preferred handbag or a couch on which the family gathered at the end of the day. Items with stories built over time and etched into the history and the reality of the leather.
You might say this is mere sentimentalism; and in part that is true. But repairing such items in ways that celebrate the imperfections and breaks, that highlight long years of use is to be honest with our raw material. Hides and skins have imperfections and the tanners role is to work with them and create a beauty from them. The more we hide them with sandpaper and pigment the closer we come to plastic. Instead, we need to engage with reality. This is our hide; it has imperfections, and we should use it and celebrate it. The same for used articles. Instead of discarding them find ways to repair them and see if in so doing make the piece unique.
Leather is highly versatile and not in every end use will this be possible. Industrial items must perform safely, watch straps will crack with perspiration after time but the vast majority can be offered a new life. The holdall that was perfect apart from the weak zip, that was hard to close when the bag was overloaded. Can it be replaced with a larger stronger zip that adds character to its enhanced functionality?
We do not have the option of dripping gold dust everywhere to highlight and beautify the cracks but there are options with stitching, staining and even patching when the expectation is guided by an artistic craftsperson who is not craving the invisible mend. The true artisan can recognise a mark as a memory.
Life is not perfect, society is not perfect, humans are not perfect and hides and skins are not perfect. It is time not only to accept the reality but be proud of it, starting with looking after our products and repairing them in ways that celebrate their renewal and hidden value. Ways that respect their origins and the changes with time and use, and not to hide wear and tear.
July 13, 2021
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood
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