Books for summer reading

It is curious that in the age of digital communications we have two of the best books on leather now available. Just coming out on June 1st is Faux Real: Genuine Leather and 200 Hundred Years of Inspired Fakes by Robert Kanigel. Corium club members who visited the centenary American Leather Chemists Conference in St Louis may well have met Robert Kanigel who has the curious title of Professor of Scientific Writing at MIT in Boston .

That gives the key to this fascinating book. Robert Kanigel has not spent his life in the leather industry nor is he a leather chemist. Yet he is able to discuss technical matters in an intelligible way and bridge that gulf we so often find between dry technical studies and the romantic novel. Instead of doing a chronology of the history of the industry his viewpoint is one of examining the many synthetic challenges to leather over the last two hundred years and interrogating the technical and marketing issues that have kept leather secure. As such this is a book which tanners will find quite irresistible. Visits to plants and locations around the world are discussed in detail as are discussions with many senior industry figures, a lot of whom are alumni or have close links with Northampton . Here you will find the author musing about Tony Covington’s comments on the complexity of tanning and Richard Daniel’s Back to Basics. So readers will find a book that is as hard to put down. It discusses aspects of our industry and how it has changed from an entirely unsuspected viewpoint and meanders through the familiar people, places and technologies that we understand so well. We have some new terms to consider – materiophilia, for those who love particular materials, the chrome tanning awareness period from 1884 to 1900 when chrome tanning failed to make real inroads into the traditional vegetable tanning methods, and the essence-of-hide, that “purified, almost sanitized collagen network, largely hairless, fatless and without extraneous proteins.”

This is a rare work not to be missed.

Curiously this follows on after a much drier work “Conservation of Leather” by Marion Kite and Roy Thomson that was published in 2006. Marion Kite is the Chairperson for the Leather Conservation Centre just round the corner from the BSLT and Roy was the Director there until his recent retirement. Before that Roy had a long career with Strong and Fisher. This book is about the conservation of leather and for those interested or involved this is clearly a must. The day to day tanner might be excused for thinking this book is not for them. It is heavy and quite expensive. Yet in a leather world that is short of good books, the first half of this text is exceedingly useful for the technician. It has a quite wonderful straightforward explanation of tanning materials and mechanisms by Tony Covington and another section on collagen and the fibre structure by the late Betty Haines.

Bob Higham walking the UK for charity

One of the chapters in the Conservation of Leather was written by Bob Higham (1959), who has been a prolific writer over the years. With many papers in the JSLTC he is perhaps best remembered for his years editing Leather International. Bob has spent the last two decades as a Minister in the Church if Scotland and in his retirement he turned up on my door step in Somerset in April. Bob is walking from John o’Groats to Lands End in spells of two ten day periods a year over a number of years. This is a 1200 mile walk form the north east tip of Scotland to the south west tip of England . Bob is doing this for a charity called the Indian Ministries Fellowship which supports homes in Tirutanni, Tamil Nadu, and gives educational support to children in Kolar Gold Fields and Chennai. He was just back from Tamil Nadu looking at how the money is spent and promised that he had not sneaked of on any tannery tourism. There will be more on this in the summer Palimpsest.

For those interested in technology development and innovation a new book by David Edgerton, The Shock of the Old, should also be put into your shopping basket at Amazon. Apart from a picture of the Fray Bentos Frigorífico in Uruguay it’s not related to the leather industry but its down-to-earth examination of technology from the aspect of use rather than invention is much more realistic a view for someone working in day-to-day product development. Chapter headings on Time, Production, Maintenance, Nations, War and Killing give a flavour of the very different approach which the author, from Imperial College London, takes. Details of the use of the bicycle rickshaw and corrugated iron will create fascination among tanners, although even the flying toilet technology of the third world ghetto towns is not a recommended innovation to be further diffused

Talking of books the SLTC still have good supplies of their Leather Technicians Pocketbook which one major company has just purchased to hand out to every one of its technicians around the world. Equally no tannery can afford to be without a copy of the Official Methods which the Society currently has on special offer. Check their web site at

Mike Redwood

Tuesday, 22 May 2007