Old ideas have their place in a modern world

Redwood comment
Published:  29 June, 2021
Mike Redwood

During the past eighteen months of pandemic, one winner seems to have been wine; anyway it was in our household. Trapped at home with decent weather, much of the time a glass of wine while relaxing in the garden was the logical activity. So, it is a pleasure to know that over the past six months the wine producing industry has been debating unexpected livestock ideas from France.

Under consideration is the use of horses to plough between the lines of vines to remove grass. Some vineyards have turned back to horses to protect both very young and very ancient plants which are easily damaged by a tractor and plough. The horse drawn plough can be more precise and does not compact the soil like the tractor. Some vineyards have even switched to using horses to pull the cart for the grape picking as the horse walks at the right pace for the pickers without noise or diesel fumes. Over three hundred vineyards are involved but after a paper and a video conference last year interest is growing. Some own their own horses but many use contractors.

Integrating livestock back into agricultural thinking where appropriate is a good sign, as it is always leads to greater care for the soil and biodiversity. How we use our land is complicated and the idea that it must be only forests, intensive food crop cultivation or covered in concrete for roads, tourism, houses and factories makes no sense.

The pressure for food needs to start with reducing the dreadful waste everywhere and land use needs to start with protecting our soils and biodiversity. Endless monoculture of arable land maintained by adding chemicals is the last thing we need. Livestock is essential in a host of ways.
Of course, this does not mean a new stream of raw material for tanners, and anyway from my limited experience with horse hides their usefulness is limited. The first load of horse hides I dealt with was in Central America - a large load from an abattoir in Nicaragua to turn into shoe linings for Brown Shoes.

Shell Cordovan
Yet horse hides have a fascinating leather history dominated by the material known today as Shell Cordovan. Shell because it comes from the “shell” or the butt of larger horses (sometimes called the crupp) and Cordovan because of supposed links to Cordoba. In reality it is very hard to identify the origins of this very unique piece of leather. Cordovan leather historically is all about smaller skins, in particular goatskins, and many experts direct us towards what we now call Shell Cordovan as being a 19th century German invention.
I have always tended to link Shell Cordovan with the working horses we know in the UK as Shire Horses which were of great importance in Europe and elsewhere. They worked on farms, ploughing and in transport and industry pulling carts and doing other activities. When I was a toddler in Glasgow our milk was delivered daily by a such a horse and cart.

I imagine some of the history of such animals is linked back a few centuries to the heavy horses required to carry soldiers into battle wearing huge amounts of metal armour. By the 19th century there were clearly large numbers of hides available and it was possible for lots of tanners to produce leather from the kidney shaped crupp or butt areas. Here the fibres are particularly tight and dense, meaning that the leather is exceptionally strong, abrasion resistant and slow to let water through. They were largely used for “strops” to sharpen open blade razors and other such industrial uses.

As society moved towards disposable razor blades we saw tanners use shell cordovan for golf footwear where the upper tends to wear out before the sole. The extra durability of the shell leather and its waterproofness meant it was excellent for golf. As the 20th century advanced, the arrival of the buses, cars and tractors meant an end to the general availability of good quality heavy hides and Shell Cordovan moved rapidly from a utilitarian into a niche luxury item. There are only about four tanneries in the world making it from raw to finished with one or two others doing part processing.

Shell Cordovan is used now for leathergoods and footwear with a tiny amount going into the small leather items used to protect the fingers and wrists of longbow archers. Access to the limited raw material, mostly found in Europe, is the main constraint. The leather is vegetable tanned and usually finished with a polished pigmented coating on the flesh side. Properly done, this polish shows how some other coated leathers might be able to develop a beautiful patina over time with constant handling and a little care.

The return of horses to the countryside in this way rather than as pets whose numbers increase and fall with household income would be welcome, even if the numbers are small. As found in forests as well as vineyards, their presence can reduce soil damage and help diversity, as well as help some rare breeds retain their existence. And a little more Shell Cordovan would be welcome.

It might even stimulate more creativity elsewhere in the leather industry, exactly as those who first grasped the potential of this small area of the horse hide. They showed how value can be added be it based on performance or on beauty, or as we see more often with leather, both.

Mike Redwood
June 29, 2021