Mike Redwood


International Leather Maker

On March 5, I participated in Sustainability ROX’ Sustainable Design event at De Montfort University in Leicester. Students, designers and others mixed with industrialists and academics at the cutting edge of sustainable design and materials research. It is exciting to see leather involved and hopefully one more sign that the material world is embracing leather as an important future material.

After speculating previously about the potential use of leather in lunar settlements in my last opinion piece, a colleague brought the conversation sharply to earth with reports of Ukrainian soldiers struggling with frost-bitten fingers caused by inadequate gloves. So, when the February email newsletter from Cotance focused on military leathers, it was unusual but not a total surprise.

For thousands of years, leather has been an essential material for military use, and it has been fully recorded how extensively the Ancient Romans made use of it in footwear, armour, chariots and other areas. So much so that, as their legions spread through Europe, Asia and North Africa, they took their leather making skills with them to ensure the processing quality never varied. Things changed during the second half of the 20th century after tanks and helicopters replaced cavalry and leather became widely substituted by cheaper man-made alternatives. Many countries removed leather from their critical materials lists and others starting sourcing items globally via auctions to achieve the lowest price.

While many recent wars have been in warm dry climates, making fewer demands on some items of equipment, the war in Ukraine has returned to a climate where snow, rain and hot, dry weather are involved. This creates demands on equipment far beyond footwear. Issues with toxic, melting plastic seating – mentioned in the Cotance newsletter – will certainly extend to all manner of what we used to call “accoutrements”. Belts, holsters, document cases and carrying cases must be made to last.

Leather is not a bulletproof aramid fibre, but it has so many powerful properties of strength and durability in all conditions – from extreme heat to well below freezing. A reset is required to put leather back as a top material, displacing some of the inferior plastics whose short lives soon trip into unreliability in tight situations.

Material with heritage

The newsletter is a timely reminder that a material with heritage is not a sign of decline, but indicative of versatility and resilience. The very characteristics we are asking our industry and education to prioritise. More focus not less is required on leather, and we need tanners to advance its properties even further to meet future developing needs.

We should also note that in military uses we want articles fit for purpose, and this should mean less concern about perfect grades. If leather is needed to be waterproof and certain defects will interfere with achieving the specification, then sorting and grading is appropriate. But applying selections suited to luxury goods would be wasting a valuable raw material and needlessly raising the price. The military boot needs high performance rather than endless nods to nostalgia and old-fashioned attitudes in leather production.

A wider, more realistic use of lower grades, allied with better design of leather and articles required from it, would allow many military forces to make not just footwear but other articles such as gloves, belts, coats and holsters from an indigenous raw material. It could start the battle to recover the raw material (hides/skins) currently being thrown away by the meat and dairy industry, which will only happen when we start to put our thinking and our design back onto more solid foundations.


Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

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