Leather was in everything. Boats (coracles are still used in Tibet), writing materials, beer tankards, wine and water vessels, armour, industrial belting and all sorts of bits of machinery from oil seals to gas meters. They say that leather strips were put round the outside of some of the first primitive wheels and even that hides held over a fire to boil water (some suggest that this helped discover the tanning effects of smoke). Before the automobile everything to do with horses involved leather. No wonder that so many countries have classed leather as a critical material, and so many Papal and Royal Courts ensured access, sometimes exclusive, to tanners and leather goods producers.

Over time end uses for leather steadily declined and even in the few categories left the “brand” leather is being regularly squeezed into more niche positions. The 20th century saw huge changes in end uses as public transport and then automobiles took over from the horse and carriage, dress gloves collapsed while work gloves (in rubber or plastic) soared and footwear found a whole host of “better” alternates. The high price of leather is changing things again. Tanners are having to work harder to prove value for money and not all are succeeding as just more of the same is no longer enough for anyone making a standard “commodity” leather.

Technical textiles

Yet while end uses for leather have been on the slide down to six (OK we can add in parchment and saddlery but not that much more) textiles have a different vocabulary. A basic look at any list of what textiles call “applications” sees they soon zoom up to 18 or more. The textile industry created a category called “technical textiles” and works feverishly to see how traditional materials, new materials, old technology and new ideas can be combined to fit all sorts of end uses from keeping you comfortable in extreme conditions, through fabulous fashion to bullet proof vests. While work on wool turned it from scratchy jumpers to high performance base layers tanners continue to make… well, we continue to make just “leather”. Full aniline or pigmented sometimes looks like the highest level of forward thinking among many tanners.

Certainly in some areas of the military and automobile we have got leathers, which show enhanced technical performance capability but apart from a brief moment of excitement in the late twentieth century the concept of a technical leather category to go alongside our leading luxury and fashion one seems a long way off. This must change. We need to think of leather as the fabulous high performance natural material that it is, and use our skill to continuously develop it for new applications.

Oh, and that list of 18 textile applications…. that was just the “A”s. The full list is well over a hundred. 

Mike Redwood


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