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Our success in making something of beauty out of a natural material is largely dependent on the quality of the hides and skins out of which it is made. Yet despite our best efforts, the financial pressures on farming and other social and economic trends seem to be forcing quality down when we need it to improve.
This is infuriating. In nearly every case, a hide or skin of a higher quality represents an animal that has been well looked after and, consequently, provides better meat or milk. For the tanner, a poor hide or skin makes the process of leather making more complex, more costly, and harder to keep the leather true to its natural look and feel.
We have seen the outcome of declining hide quality in the battle of the luxury goods companies fighting over access to the limited supply of top grade hides. See today’s acquisition by Chanel as further proof.
I know we have the International Hides and Allied Trades Improvement Society (IHATIS) as part of the ICT, and that every few years they have managed to support an initiative for improvement. Equally, a huge amount of work has been done in the emerging markets. Yet it all seems to be an endless struggle without succeeding in breaking the downward spiral.
So as I sit and read a booklet written by Guy Reaks in 1980, at that time the Director of the then British Leather Federation, in which he states that at a minimum the value of the rawstock could be increased by twenty percent, and up to sixty percent if the added values of leather are included, one wonders what has happened.
It makes for tough reading as the core of gains come from what we can only call common sense: "hides and skins could earn an extra 20% through hide improvement involving nothing more than good husbandry and standard skills all the way through... from farmer to tanner."
He lists in details issues we know well, albeit it is 36 years since this paper was written. Barbed wire, warble fly (largely eliminated in the UK as a result of 20 years campaigning by tanners for the Warble Fly Order of 1978), lice, ticks, parasites, branding, scars and septic sores from careless injections, shearing cuts on sheep, dung, overheating because of inadequate cooling after take-off, and many more straightforward items that just need to be carried out with greater attention.
For a technician starting in the industry, these aspects of hide and skin improvement were given a significant status, and I well remember spending a lot of time at abattoirs following up on matters. Our company had a small team of hide improvement experts who were continuously travelling to farms and slaughterhouses in the supply chain. These days, new technicians are immediately pressed into the demands on RSLs and other environmental issues, so raw material quality has to fight for attention.
The other areas are important, but we make a great error if we fail to invest more in working with our suppliers around the world to get our raw material back on an improving trajectory.
13th July 2016
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