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I always like to carry a tanner’s magnifying glass, and have a collection to choose from that go back to the days when chemical companies used to hand them out as gifts. One from Rohm & Haas remains a favourite, although the US$15 add-on lenses for an iPhone do give exceptional results that are easier to share with colleagues.
Using one to look at the make up of a piece of skin shows that it consists primarily of long thick fibres and fibre bundles interweaving in three dimensions within a jelly like “ground substance”. This intricate, three dimensional, woven structure predominates and gives skin based materials many of their unique physical qualities.
These properties include flexibility, a relatively high tensile strength with a particular resistance to shock loads, to tearing, puncturing and abrasion, low bulk density, good heat insulation and water vapour transmission. They also include resistance to wind and liquid water, an ability to be stretched and compressed without distorting the surface and mould-ability.
All these properties are adapted and adjusted during the tanning processes to align them to fit the final end use envisaged so that all in all we can talk about a quite amazing substrate given to us by nature.
Plastics are a planetary disaster
Those listening to Parley for Oceans Founder, Cyrill Gutsch, addressing stylists, designers and students in the “Smart Creation” area at the Première Vision Leather Fair in Paris last week will have compared all these thoughts about leather to his much-quoted comment on plastic: “Humans have created a material (plastic) that never goes away and never dies. Every year it is responsible for killing thousands of birds, mammals and marine species. Plastic is a design failure.”
That is before you consider that it comes from a non-renewable, non-sustainable source of petrochemicals. His pictures of choked up rivers and polluted beaches and ocean beds spoke for themselves.
This approach that plastic is a design failure is a highly informative one. When the industrial revolution began loss of resources, waste and pollution increased rapidly but made less of an impact as with a small global population humankind’s footprint was tiny compared with today. Now our reach is everywhere and plastic is part of the cheap to make quick to throw away society, one that is totally alien to the whole ethos of leather.
Leather is not perfect and must always strive to do better, plus we have small but significant pockets of production who do not adhere to any norms of behaviour in terms of human or environmental behaviour, but by comparison to plastic we offer a natural material which is versatile, long lasting, repairable and usually re-usable. Leather does not get the credit it is due.
Sadly, there is not enough leather to meet the world’s demand so alternates are required, but the world needs to be reminded that it is a beneficiary from every square foot of leather that it can use, thus minimising the need for plastic based substitutes.
Dr Mike Redwood
26th September 2017
Follow Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood
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