I have recently been revising some of the work of the late Roy Thompson on the history of leather for courses offered to selected groups by the world-famous Leather Conservation Centre. After a career in making leather, Thompson ran the LCC from 1994-2004, after which he continued to teach the history and technology of leather on their behalf, a task he handed to me a few years ago.

It is quite clear from his detailed notes that the Pithecanthropoid group of hominids realised they were making leather. Sometimes known as “Java man”, they were not the first to use tools to break through the hides of animals (they did not have the large teeth of other carnivores for this) or to use hides and skins in daily life, but Pithecanthropoids were systematic and successful hunters who had learned to control fire and cooked their meat. 

They had also developed a wider range of tools including the typical Acheulean coup-de-point (a stone or flint shaped to a point) which has been shown to have been used for both butchering and skinning. They built tent structures with wood covered in hides and stacked bundles of hides and skins to make the sides. Fires were lit inside, so they would have soon observed both the curing of gently dried hides and, significantly, the mild aldehyde tanning effect created by the acrolein in the smoke.

A crude form of leather produced over a million years ago

They are known to have produced further implements to work with this basic leather. As Roy concludes: “It is very possible that a crude form of leather was being produced by Pithecanthropus Erectus hominids over a million years ago.”

We have long been sure that smoke, brain and oil processing played a vital role in the start of leather processing and have been reminded recently by researchers in Nubian and ancient Egyptian leathers that the utility of the hide was often adequate, indeed better, with these simpler process methods that did not raise the shrinkage temperature to modern day expectations.

But the leathers functioned effectively and still lasted a long time; performance and sustainability were the two prime attributes. Yet, to use this leather, they had to be fashioned into articles. Clothing, bags, straps, tents, liquid carriers and all other items needed to be designed and here entered that hard to define element of beauty, some arising from the material itself and some from the combined perfection of material and the design.

Durable leathers

Growing society demanded even greater durability for footwear, and industrial and military uses, leading to further development of vegetable tanned leathers. These added even more benefits: an ability to be moulded into shape and develop a wondersome patina with use over time. Many articles using vegetable leathers not only lasted a long time when cared for but could be repaired and handed down through the generations, creating a new concept of value and sustainability.

From the animals that ploughed and fertilised the land, and provided food, communities had a by-product with infinite uses, suitable for items they could treasure and would rarely wear out.

Over time, other materials arrived – glass, pottery, metals, paper and textiles. They replaced leather in some end uses but it was only in the 20th century that the market share of leather in daily life really began to diminish. This was because of an apparently miraculous material called plastic: a series of polymers made from fossil fuels which could be adapted in many ways to solve problems – real or imagined – throughout our daily lives.

There were two other big advantages: plastic was cheap and disposable. It played a major role in persuading consumers to rebalance their spending away from saving for quality towards borrowing to buy cheaper things in greater volume; and then throw them away. Leather became marginalised towards a very consumption oriented, commercialised definition of luxury.

Now we know that there are many issues with plastics, far beyond the leather industry complaint that they never get a charge on their carbon footprint for either their fossil fuel origins or their short useful lives. Indeed, they have become a menace to the future of our planet.

Performance, sustainability and beauty

So those three words – performance, sustainability and beauty – remain fundamentally unchanged today. They require no more than a mild adaptation as time passes, leaving the underlying meanings intact.

We have our leather back and must not let anyone hijack our truth again. Whatever definition you use from Brundtland to concepts within CSR or ESG, to the circular economy, biodiversity and the SDGs, leather fits as an outstanding sustainable material. And it still performs, still lasts longer, still develops its personality and patina in use.

After over one million years. How good is that?

Mike Redwood

September 28, 2021


Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

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