Leather has probably been used as clothing, and for various other purposes, since early Man first started hunting animals. After all, when you have spent many hours – and perhaps days – stalking your prey, you are not going to let anything go to waste. Any part of the carcass that can remotely be eaten is eaten, and what remains is put to some other use. Bones are used as tools, or decoration, fat is rendered down to produce oil for rush-lights, and the skin…well, that is literally a second skin. Complete with the fur, it helps to protect you from the cold.
But the end result must have been pretty stinky. With a very limited shelf life. It was not until around 7,000 BC, in what is now Pakistan, that tanning emerged. Now it was possible to wear leather without disgusting your significant other (although as they also wore leather, the stinks probably cancelled each other out). However, as the tanning process involved scraping decaying fat, flesh and blood from the hides and then removing the fur with urine, being a tanner was not likely to win you many friends. And tanneries themselves were relegated to the outskirts of town, and downwind.
Much has changed since then, of course. Although the basic process remains the same, you could probably live next door to a modern tannery and never know it.
Leather is a very versatile product. It is durable and flexible. It can be stained in just about any colour and is used for belts, jackets, wallets, trousers, shoes, gloves, bags and, of course, furniture. There are even leather floors. Naturally, the quality of the leather, and the animal that it comes from, determines what that particular leather will be used for. At one extreme, there is goatskin leather, traditionally used to produce kid gloves. And, yes, kid gloves are very soft – hence the expression “to give someone the kid glove treatment”. At the other extreme, there is saddle leather, which has to be comfortable yet hard-wearing – you don’t want to slip out of the saddle, do you?
Like most processes, leather production is now largely automated. It can also involve the use of chemicals such as chromium salts and formaldehyde, which are dangerous to the environment and to the health of workers. Fortunately, there are leather producers who still use the traditional, tried-and-tested methods of tanning, which incur none of these problems. The leather products that you see on Debonair are all made using these methods.
Similarly, the way leather is worked after tanning also varies considerably. For example, you can buy a simple leather belt in just about any high-street store, but don’t expect much bang for your buck. The buckle may be attractive, for as long as it lasts, but, even if it is actually made of real leather, the belt itself will probably be less than impressive. And it will not get better with time. This is a disposable product.
But there are also artisans who take their craft seriously. A belt, wallet or billfold made by hand from the finest ethically sourced leather and fashioned to the highest standards will last you a lifetime.
“I was drawn into leatherworking by the nature of the material and how it ages over time,” says Kingsley Walters, whose work is featured on Debonair. “Two identical leather products will weather differently over the years, depending on how they are used.”
Your belt or wallet may often go unnoticed. Who cares? You, at least, will have the satisfaction of knowing that you are wearing, or carrying, a hand-crafted artefact made to a tradition that goes back 9,000 years.