Meanwhile… Leather


Working as a basket-maker also brought me into contact with leather, as people invariably wanted leather straps on bicycle baskets, picnic baskets, shoulder baskets… Fortunately, I knew a brilliant saddler, who was prepared to try any ideas I threw at him, and he always came up with wonderful work. (Sadly, he retired about the same time as I gave up basketry – a great loss to the leather-working world.*)

As with wood, wicker, and other easily perishable material, there is little prehistoric evidence of leather, though it’s not hard to believe it being worked since the dawn of humanity. The oldest leather shoe ever found, discovered in 2010 in an Armenian cave, dates from 3,500 BC. Homer (writing in 700 BC) describes leather shields and other armour, as well as the leather backstays on Odysseus’s ship.

Leather is produced via a series of processes, including: preparation, during which a raw hide is soaked and stripped of hair; tanning, when the hide is pickled in a stabilising liquid to prevent it rotting; and crusting, which can involve many sub-processes, but which focusses on conditioning the tanned hide. Once the leather is finished, it can be worked into any one of a vast range of uses: from clothing to suitcases, book-binding to keyrings.

*The saddler’s shop was one of those wonderfully quirky places where a little bell dinged as you opened the door, and you could wait ten minutes before the old man appeared. In the meantime, his cash register (a wooden drawer in the counter top), was usually open with large sums of money sticking out. He spoke really slowly, and I’d sometimes wait weeks for finished pieces to appear, but he was the most fabulous artist and craftsman.

A 5,500-year-old shoe, from Areni-1 cave in Armenia.

A 5,500-year-old shoe, from Areni-1 cave in Armenia.

Update: check out my Leather board on Pinterest.

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