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The log fire in the Oak Hall in West Dean is permanently lit. Outside, it’s been below zero for the last few days and we have a group gathered together from all over Europe, plus Canada and The Middle East, spending a week learning about Leather Conservation. We are with the staff from the Leather Conservation Centre in an ancient country estate near Chichester in the south of England, now dedicated to the teaching of traditional crafts and conservation.
Mostly, our students are conservators from the National Museum of their country or other famous museums; experts in textile, metal or general conservation. They have been surprised at the number of artefacts their museums hold that are made of leather, or contain leather. Until recent times leather was ubiquitous. It was needed to fight wars, needed in transportation and in agriculture. It was essential in industry and it vital in everyday life. Items using leather help us understand the evolution of society over tens of thousands of years.
As it is today, leather has always been durable. It lasts a very long time. Many items like drinking vessels and equestrian equipment were passed down through the generations. We have leather tankards with initials stamped in them showing three generations, and should they ever get damaged beyond repair they were adapted for other uses such as holding salt.
Samples of tannery trimmings still lie in piles in the Adirondacks, in north east New York state, from abandoned tanneries in the forest that have not been touched since they closed in the middle of the 19th century. The tannage had not degraded and we can identify the primary materials used. It is no wonder that we have large amounts of leather from the ancient Romans, or from Ötzi who was found in 1991 after 5,300 years hidden on the high mountain border between Austria and Italy. His clothing and footwear was carefully made from a variety of animal skin types, mostly tanned with brains and smoke.
In a world obsessed by consumerism, buying things that are effectively disposable after a single use, like a coffee cup or a straw, or even a party top, or items that need replacing after just a few months we need to start to recognise the true value of quality. The value, and savings in emissions, that comes from well-made items, using quality materials that last a long time.
Our priorities seem totally wrong if we prefer a piece of non-repairable, plastic-coated textile pretending to be leather that will rapidly wear out. Just as much as it seems curious to lose one third of all the food produced in the world through loss or waste, while complaining about livestock being wasteful eating grass.
Dr Mike Redwood
13th December 2017
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood
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