Victoria Ledig's fully vegetable tanned wet hides

Man has used leather since prehistoric times, for everything from clothing and shelter to boats and armour. Leather tanning is one of the oldest human activities – early methods using animal fats are mentioned in Assyrian texts and Homer’s Iliad.

As the design industry returns to traditional materials and making techniques, it comes as no surprise to see leather making a comeback. What’s interesting is the myriad ways in which it’s being used.

Brooks England Ltd has been using leather in its products since it was founded in 1866. Andrea Meneghelli, Brand Director, says, “Leather is a very good material to make saddles from, because it shapes to the contours of your body. Because it is a natural material, it’s long lasting, pleasant to look at, touch and smell, and it ages gracefully.

“I think designers are coming back to natural materials like leather, because most synthetic materials do not age as nicely and just don’t have the durability of leather. I think there will always be a market for natural and traditional materials.”

Brooks Factory Leather sadles

Contemporary design-duo Farg & Blanche are pushing the limits of embroidery, by using the latest technology in sewing machines to attach leather to wood in their Wood Tailoring collection, launched during Stockholm Design Week, in February 2014.

Emma Marga Blanche said, “We have tried extreme sewing technology over the past few years. Wood Tailoring employs the sewing machine to stitch directly onto the wood in order to join different parts together while at the same time creating patterns which have an aesthetic of their own. Sewing is usually seen as something that has to do with soft materials. We use our heavy-duty sewing machines to sew wood, leather and heavy-duty insulation materials. It’s a raw poetry that fuses the hand-made with the industrial.

“It is nice to mix two natural materials such as wood and leather together. They speak the same language: quality, tradition and handcraft. The fantastic thing with leather is that it can be both soft and thick at the same time. It is perfect for our Pocket Cupboard, creating a stiff but flexible leather pocket on the front of a plywood door.”

Pocket cupboard by FARG & BLANCHE

But it’s Design Academy Eindhoven graduate, Victoria Ledig, who is really pushing the boundaries, with her final year project, Precious Skin.

“It started with a fascination with leather as a material. I started to get a feel for what a fantastic material it is. You can do so much with it – you can turn it into something that seems almost artificial,” says Victoria. “I realised that the connection with what leather is and where it comes from has been lost, which is a pity.”

Victoria decided she wanted to use leather for her final project. “I always want to have a reason for using a specific material, so I develop strong relationships with the materials I use. Questioning and rethinking a material is often the starting point for a new project,” she says. “In this case, I wanted to include the origin in the story – to show that leather was once the skin of a living animal. It is not a flat sterile material. It was once walking around. It had wrinkles. There is a lot of beauty in the real skin of a cow. Of course, there is the gory part, the slaughter, in this story as well, but that is as important as our love for leather.”

During an internship at the Ecco tannery, Victoria noticed that only the skin from the torso of the cow is used in the leather industry. Victoria procured skin from cows’ ears, faces, tails, hooves… all the parts that are usually discarded from leather production and used for less valued things like dog food. She says, “Some of my colleagues in the tannery were slightly shocked at my plans to tan the skin of every body part of a cow. I was even told that it was not possible to tan these pieces properly. The day I arrived at the tannery with my fresh skins from the slaughterhouse felt a bit like a curiosity show. I created quite a stir putting ears and tails into the tanning drums! In the end it worked perfectly – I ended up with very beautifully vegetable-tanned leather pieces.”

Victoria’s next challenge was to create desirable and functional items from these pieces of leather. “Once I had finished all the work and actually had a collection of bags, that was a very rewarding moment. Especially when I saw people’s positive and surprised reactions. The collection aims to reconnect people with the material’s origin and natural beauty. I wanted to place the animal’s past into the products that are made from its skin. It’s simply about the beauty of all the imperfections and textures in the skin of different parts of the cow’s body and what I can do with them.”

Precious Skin Victoria Ledig

Further reading for the especially geeky:

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This article was originally commissioned by the D&AD and will also appear on their Inspiration site in due course.