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Who Discovered Leather?

Millions of years ago, those who evolved into becoming homo sapiens first discovered that the skin of a dead animal could fulfil their clothing needs. Over time, tools were created and techniques were developed without the knowledge of “why and how”. For example, they would let the skins soak in an organic base solution filled with bacteria that would attack the surfaces. This process resulted in loosened fibers and partially dissolving proteins of the dermis to make it easier, even just possible, to remove the hair. Also, to prevent putrefaction, they would let the skins dry on the ground and they would rub them with organic substances such as animal fat or brain mixture to try to preserve flexibility. Eventually, as time went by and new ways were tested, they would let the hides rest on a forest’s ground leading, unknowingly, to the discovery of tanning. As natural chemicals and tannins formed from the plants and leaves lying underneath the skins, the ancestor of tanning was slowly taking form. Many centuries passed before tanning methods were implemented with similar techniques all over the world. It is using earth salts (containing alum) that inhabitants discovered they could create softer and cleaner leather. This new technique lead the way to coloured leather using plant pigments. The colours were subtle but met the need of belonging and expressing with the increasing of the population. Prior to “white” leather, as they called it when they used alum, organic matters left quite a distinguished dirty dark colour on a hide… You can imagine!

From wall paintings and artifacts found in Egyptian tombs to ancient Greece and Rome, leather continued to be used for a wide variety of purposes. Clothes, shoes, household items, military equipments, transportations and the list goes on. Leather kept gaining popularity and by medieval times, practically every town had their own tannery. They would be located next to rivers, or other water sources, as they needed it to process the hides or to power some basic machinery. Some of these tanneries still exist today but the majority of them were eliminated as the ongoing stench was hard to endure for the locals. Nowadays, only street names and books remain evidences of the past.

Leather has an extensive history and although today’s industry constantly improves its techniques, there is a sense of our roots deeply anchored within each piece that cannot be copied by anything else. This “aesthetic appeal” is complex to explain theoretically but on the field, it is a tangible phenomenon. The smell and feel of natural leather has something comforting for many people and this can only be explained by our long history: it is in our genes.

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