Mike Redwood


International Leather Maker

Before the end of the decade, we expect to see people on the moon and, not long after, small communities being established to live and work there. These will not all be professional astronauts but increasingly ordinary people adapting to life in a totally artificial environment.

What will their equipment look like? Previous visits to the moon have been low on waste management considerations but the same approach when long-term living is involved will turn the moon into another municipal waste dump.

For most of the last few decades, new materials made from monomers produced from fossil fuels would have been used, with technical textiles and high-performance materials engineered for every purpose. But, in this new space, a proper understanding of the circular economy is essential to the model, as items will need to last longer, be repaired and refurbished. Repurposing at end of life will be much more valuable than putting aside for reprocessing. which is likely to be highly demanding of additional new materials and energy.

Natural materials

This should bring natural materials such as leather and wool strongly into play in a wide variety of uses, as they offer longevity, versatility and high performance. Evidence from the three-year Mallory Replica Project, headed by Professor Mary B Rose and Mike Parsons of Lancaster University Management School’s Institute for Entrepreneurship and Enterprise Development (IEED), revealed that mountaineer George Mallory was as perfectly attired in natural materials when he climbed Everest in 1924 as modern climbers.

They state that in his protective layering system, George Leigh Mallory included a pale green windproof Burberry climbing suit over several layers of silk, cotton and wool for his summit bid in June 1924. Their research project replicated the Mallory clothing layers (from the fragments brought back from Everest in 1999) and demonstrated that the assumption that the clothing was heavy, ill-fitting, stiff and inadequate was totally untrue. The reproductions which the authors had made were used up to 25,000 ft on Everest with positive results.

Rose and Parsons describe the Burberry windproof climbing suit as made of gabardine; a densely woven fine cotton, which was lightweight, tough and breathable. Indeed, they describe it as better than modern windproofs in that respect. When Mallory’s body was found in 1999, it showed no signs of frostbite. Mallory’s hobnailed leather boots were also thought to have been effective, although no climbers today would venture above the snow line in leather. As with Mallory’s non leather clothing (he travelled with a lot of leather and hair on items), none of the natural materials he used were extensively further developed after the mid-century love affair with plastics began.

Now we look back at this with confusion as we discover the dangers of microplastic particles in the oceans, plus the persistent (forever) chemicals that the plastic obsession has given us. The synthetic coated fabrics that are used for cheap disposable leather goods, which often last no more than eighteen months, are exceedingly hard to recycle because of their two-component structure.

Looking back, there were quite a few very smart materials available for outdoor activities in difficult weathers, including leather. Waxed and oiled fabrics, for example, and Ventile, which involved a long-stapled cotton that kept out water when the yarns swelled. As with the later Sea Harrier leather pilots’ gloves, this material could keep a pilot dry, and thus alive, for 20 minutes in the cold North Sea if they had to eject. The gloves are particularly relevant as they additionally offered adequate dexterity to inflate a life raft and climb in.

Older than all these are the “hoodies” worn by native people when canoeing in Arctic waters. They used the stomachs of seals and other large animals but did not remove the membrane. After sealing the seams with animal glue, these are totally waterproof and are usually worn under a hair-on caribou parka, which protects the thin material as well as giving some warmth. I have written about this wonderful technology before and the lucky few conservation experts attending the April Leather Conservation Centre course at West Dean in Southern England will enjoy a demonstration of some other Arctic peoples’ technology with fish skins.

A natural membrane is attractive as current oil-based ones have a limited life that ends up defining the life of the shoe or garment. Few last beyond three years without leaking and, with heavy wear, often do not last more than half that. I use Paramo jackets with directional fabric, which is the only good outdoor coat without a membrane and, for footwear, I have reverted to old fashioned dubbin and buying boots with minimal seams. For regular cold weather, leather needs to come back.

The extremes of interplanetary life will not all be met by natural materials, but we should get leather in the mix early as we plan these new moon communities. Outdoor leathers and some military wear have continued to advance to a degree, as have upholstery leathers in terms of weight and the wide range of fire resistance aspects for different settings, but evolving leather for extensive use on moon settlements needs a technological push to another new level.  Building a new landscape of advanced leathers fit for the moon and beyond would be a great new challenge for us all. Don’t wait to be asked.

To purchase a copy of the booklet Mallory Myths and Mysteries: The Mallory Clothing Replica Project, please email enquiries@mountain-heritage.org.


Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

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