Mike Redwood


International Leather Maker

Making promises that will knowingly not be kept, rewriting history for ideological purposes and turning the fabric of everyday wellbeing – food and fuel for example – into weapons of war have become commonplace.

By comparison, the leather industry cannot hide the truths of history. They are written in large letters within the hundreds of thousands of objects that sit in our museums all over the world. The Museum of Leathercraft in Northampton alone has nearly 10,000 items and the nearby shoe museum probably holds more, but almost every major and minor museum around the world holds such items as gloves, saddles, shoes, garments, cases, writing desks or one of many other items made with leather on their shelves and in their vaults.

Leather has a history told through physical archives; through plain speaking objects that can be observed and often handled. Leather bound books and journals, major texts preserved through centuries on parchment, items owned by emperors and royalty and items used by ordinary people to make the best of everyday life.

Hides and skins provided the first sheet material

We need to look after this multitude as it is only the leather industry’s artefacts that can take us through the history of leather and of civilisation itself. Hides and skins provided the first sheet material able to be used in various forms of preservation suited to the knowledge and the conditions of the times. It was used for clothing, shelter, carrying, transporting, fighting, working and many other things required for society to progress through uncountable millennia.

Last week at West Dean, a wonderful country house in the south of London, the Leather Conservation Centre (LCC) ran its annual course for conservationists and museum staff from around the world. A full house of attendees from museums along with conservation experts from a multitude of institutions worked on how to conserve artefacts from many ages and civilisations.

It has hard to grasp the importance of these objects to society. We worked through historic Islamic texts, children’s footwear left from the concentration camps of the Holocaust, sporting and military items from 8th century Japan to a 20th century Great War football, found spiked onto a frontline fence, along with ageless agricultural footwear from China and traditional luncheon boxes from Ethiopia. Through leather, they talk to us about history from ancient times to the present, mapping each stage of of the advancement of society; and they do not tell lies.

They also remind us that leather offers longevity and articles made from them have, throughout history, repaired and repurposed. Certainly, many items come from ancient waste pits, but it is here that signs of repair are most often uncovered. Other items have been preserved and handed down through the generations, a story about where they have been and who has been the custodian.

Some have survived because they have been buried without air and others trapped in the depth of the oceans. Some have seen use through the generations as is expected of a luxury handbag or brief case today. Drinking vessels are sometimes marked with the initials of father and then the sons.

Like so many leather items, they wear in rather than wear out, build their character over time and are repaired if stitching or other areas fail. Like an ancient tree, they are history but also carry their story through time. Their injuries form part of their story, a history to tell and a patina that helps tell it.

Applaud the Conservation Centre staff for their skill and dedication

Historians now recognise that there is a lot of history in these objects yet to be understood and told. Each year we discover in more detail how things were done in the past. Increasingly we are looking East to places like Japan where vegetable and chrome tanning were very late arrivals and old methods can still be found in use. Melting glaciers and permafrost are releasing ancient artefacts to experts better able to handle them than in the past. They can now be conserved for extended examination.

This means we must secure and conserve the leather industry back catalogue, the industry story and the part leather played in a developing world. We need to support our museums and the staff who work on conserving the objects. I applaud the staff at the LCC for their work in conservation and commitment to the Centres role on education and research related to leather and leather objects. Conservation is an underfunded area and around the world government finance is patchy and decreasing. Globally salaries for experienced graduates in Conservation are below the starting salary offered a graduate in a tannery.

Leather requires the human touch

Surely the leather industry can look at this through different eyes and offer help. Start asking museums and conservators to delve into their physical archives and update the backstory of leather, again and again, as there are so many stories that need telling.

Use this archive with customers, designers and communities to link the validity and learnings from the past with the high technology of the present; and to remind everyone that leather will always requires craft and art, the human touch, to succeed. And to ensure the stories remain alive to be told in perpetuity we need skilled conservators. All this is part of the industry’s responsibility.


Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

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