Mike Redwood


International Leather Maker

A footwear designer friend of mine, who lives in Denmark, posted an item on social media. She said it explained why she much preferred wearing natural fibres like cotton, wool and linen to some of the newer fabrics, which are supposedly so good. The article was about fabrics made from bamboo. As a plant, it offers quite exceptional features of carbon dioxide sequestration capable of being “pollarded” without damage to the root system plus a long list of consumer benefits such as anti-bacterial and de-odourising.

However, it’s manufacture into fabrics leaves a lot to be desired. Large numbers of chemicals and a lot of water are involved regardless of whether it is Rayon, Viscose or Lyocell. All three are far superior to synthetic fibres produced from fossil fuels both in terms of their origins and their biodegradability and, while the lyocell version looks environmentally superior from a production perspective, it’s clearly not the straightforward perfect fibre we were told to expect.

Crushing and breaking fibres into mush

Bamboo fibres were first introduced into the sports and outdoor market nearly two decades ago, offering all the benefits of a natural fibre. Even a basic look at processing methodology, mechanical and chemical, makes an observer question how well these properties can withstand the strong alkali, strong acid and bleaching processes that are gone through, never mind the disruptive physical battering involved. Bamboo is often sold in garments mixed with other fibres, sometimes natural but often synthetic, so it is always a case of buyer beware.

So, like my colleague, I would choose to have natural fibres next to my skin and I wonder how these new materials have managed to escape the scrutiny given to leather. Leather does get conditioned with chemicals but managed in ways intended to leave the structure intact as the concept behind leather is to leave nature’s protective covering to do its job. Only enough is done to support its longevity and add properties specific to end use.

Hides and skins do not need to be crushed and broken down into some form of “mushy mass” for the fibres to be extracted and spun into a yarn. In fact, every definition of leather, including the one internationally agreed one, demand that the basic structure is left alone. Leather’s fibre structure is exactly as it comes from the animal and its complex non-directional weave is what makes it so special. Unless the processing given to leather involves things like excessively thick finishing, it offers all the benefits both biophilic and physical that hides and skins offer in nature.

Bamboo fibre is an amazing material and, in theory, is an exceptionally eco-friendly alternative to manmade fibres. It comes from a renewable resource which is fast-growing, anti-bacterial, breathable and de-odourising. While all of that is true, the processes involved in making bamboo fibres are maybe not so eco-friendly and, for most of us, like my designer friend, that is new information. We must ask why this is when so much that is negative has been shouted out to every designer over the last three decades.

Under scrutiny

The leather making processes are rightly transparent and scrutinised. Listening in to the annual environmental report from the European tanners’ association, Cotance, everyone learns the precise impact of development such as reductions in the use of water or energy, and of increasing use of chrome-free systems. Some tanners have published their life cycle assessments (LCAs) in full.

Many new materials hide their chemistries and LCAs behind confidentiality barriers and it has taken work by FILK to help uncover the truth. I have argued that most of these materials are investing heavily to improve, so tanners cannot sit back and say the competitive battle has been won. Yet, just as equally, it is perfectly fair that every material new or old should be given the same scrutiny and be analysed fairly and objectively. That is what the Higg Index failed to do with natural materials for so many years.

Just because leather has been improperly treated for decades, it does not mean we should accept it. Equally, we should note that we have started to win through publishing researched facts, not shouting slogans. This is a case where only the truth, the proper facts well documented, will ever win out.


Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

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