Despite the vegan trend and growing environmental awareness, animal skin has become an integral part of fashion and everyday life: leather is omnipresent. And yet the stinking craft of leather tanning no longer fits into the Western world; today our leather comes from Asia and Latin America. An interview with materials expert Franziska Müller-Reissmann, who advocates a more conscious use of leather and offers a continuing education course on the issues involved.
BY ANNINA MARIA JAGGY
Annina Maria Jaggy: What is leather?
Franziska Müller-Reissmann: Tanning turns skin into leather. Its structure is changed and made durable. Early in human history, the brain mass of slain animals was used as tannin for their hides. Such so-called seed tanning, based on animal fatty acids, was soon supplemented by vegetable tanning with oak bark and other vegetable substances.
How long does the tanning process take?
Traditional vegetable tanning processes take up to 18 months. This is one of the reasons why they were replaced in the 20th century by more efficient chemical-mineral tanning using chromium, the most widespread method these days. Chrome tanning takes just four hours, making it better suited to today’s mass production and consumer culture.
Why are there hardly any tanneries in Europe today?
This is mainly due to the strict environmental requirements for chrome tanning. It is more economical to have tanning outside Europe, in countries where waste chemicals and occupational safety requirements are less stringent or not controlled. Around 1900 there were 350 leather tanneries in Switzerland, today there are only three.
In many other areas, crafts in Switzerland are currently experiencing a revival — why isn’t leather tanning trendy?
Leather tanning is a dirty craft, independent of the tanning material, whose stages such as stripping, liming, tanning and trimming are not compatible with the aestheticization of exemplary craftsmanship. The lack of tanneries also helps to suppress the conditions under which today’s mass leather is produced. Accordingly, child labour and environmental scandals surrounding chrome-tanned leather are not necessarily associated with the shoes we wear on our feet.
Although they are not uncontroversial, the demand for leather clothes and objects is unbroken. What do we — consciously or unconsciously — associate with the material?
We are used to erecting a barrier between ourselves and “reality”: packaging stands between foodstuffs and us, fashion between clothes and us, media between immediate experience and us. Leather seems to occupy a special role in this “authenticity gap.” Although we neither hunt, slaughter or tan, leather, especially the type made from the skin of wild animals, has assumed some trophy-like status. Whether in print or for real: exotic leather is an expression of both power and ferocity. The skin of the slain creature, which we don, strongly polarizes opinion: vegans categorically reject leather; for some it represents an affinity with nature, for others luxury.
As an expert, how do you rate the use of leather?
Whether or not we wear leather is up to us. Though how it is made unfortunately not. If we adorn ourselves with the skin of other living beings, we must take an ethical stance. Consumers as well as designers, fashion creators and cultural educators should therefore acquire background knowledge of leather and tanning.