Leatherworking

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The History of Leatherworking

THE DAWN

Leather tanning is undoubtedly one of the oldest crafts known to man.
The skins obtained from hunting and breeding were initially used to make clothing or tents, but they became stiff at low temperatures and rotted in the heat. They were probably later rubbed with animal fats to make them more flexible and durable. This represented the first rudimentary tanning process and is documented in Homer's Illiad and various Assyrian writings. Another process used in ancient times was smoking - almost certainly discovered by chance.

This then lead to tanning with aldehyde, an element present in the smoke emitted by burning leaves and green twigs. It was soon found that the putrefecation process could also be slowed down by drying, carried out by exposure to the sun or by rubbing in salt. Vegetable tanning, in its turn, was also known in far off times, although it is not clear how the properties of the tannin found in the bark of some trees (especially oak) was discovered. The other method known since 'the dawn of time' is tanning with alum. This mineral is quite widespread in its natural state, particularly in volcanic areas. These processes, which gradually became more refined and effective, provided the basis for the use of leather in the ancient world, and continued to do so for centuries and centuries, right through to the present.

Evidence of widespread use of these techniques has been found in numerous written documents and paintings, and in archaeological finds. In Mesopotamia, for example, the Sumerians used leather to make long dresses and diadems for women between the fifth and third milleniums BC. The Assyrians used leather for footwear, and also for wineskins which, when inflated, served as floats for rafts. But it was the ancient Indian civilisation that first began to process leather in the manner now known as 'Morocco'. The Egyptians also achieved considerable skills in working leather, using it for clothing (even for gloves), tools, weapons and simple ornaments. The Phoenecians came up with an interesting use for leather: according to the historian Strabo they fashioned it into water pipes. In Roman times leather was widely used in all corners of the Empire, where the best tanning methods were introduced if these had not already been developed locally. The Romans used leather for footwear and clothing, and for making shields and harnesses. A tannery of the period was discovered amongst the ruins of Pompei and was found to contain all the equipment that was to remain in use over subsequent centuries.

FROM THE MIDDLE AGES TO THE PRESENT

'Cordovan' leather production was developed during the eighth century in Spain, then under Moorish domination, and, thanks to the important advances this represented for the tanning process, remained famous throughout Europe for centuries. But Marco Polo demonstrated that working leather was not restricted only to the Western world. In his 'Il Milione' he tells us that the Mongols had been using leather for flasks, blankets, masks and caps, and until last century few substantial changes had been made to their tanning methods. Oil tanning was used to produce skins for protective garments, and alum tanning was also widespread, though not always entirely successful. Various finishing operations were also often made to make the leather more supple and give it a better appearance, mainly through dyeing.

In addition to their practical uses, these products also served decorative purposes. As early as the fourteenth century, for example, leather was combined with wood to produce chairs, sedans and benches with a skill approaching that of genuine art. This was also the case with upholstery (especially in Venice in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries), and the construction of boxes and jewel cases, while leather also lent refinement and durability to the craft of bookbinding. Going back to tanning techniques, the depilatory action of quick lime was discovered around about the Middle Ages, a technique that is still valid and in normal use. But a radical shake-up in the middle of last century came with the discovery of the tanning properties of chrome salts. This lead to great improvements in production quality when it was adopted by industry towards the end of the century. Another revolutionary factor was the substitution of the tanning pit with the rotating drum, along with the discovery of new types of tannins.

As a result of these innovations, the time needed for tanning was greatly reduced; a process requiring eight to twelve months was reduced to just a few days. In conclusion, we'll make a backward jump to look at the systems and tools used for working leather. And we find that these remained almost unchanged from Paleolithic times to the threshold of the modern era, apart from improvements in efficiency and ease of use. Similar tools for fleshing, scraping, shaving, perching, padding and trimming have been found from almost every historical period in which tanning was carried out. This is a further indication that the craft of tanning skins has been in step with the history of mankind, retaining a level of craftsmanship that, even now in times of increasing automation, is still closely linked to the personal sensitivity and solid experience of the tanner.