From animal hide to hiking boot: leather

To be honest, I had never really thought about where leather hiking boots (or indeed any other leather product) come from before I met Michael Redwood (@michaelredwood), visiting Professor in Business Development in Leather at The University of Northampton, at this year’s Innovation for Extremes conference (write up coming soon I promise!). Mike and I were both on a panel discussing whether wearable technology in footwear was inevitable and, as I live just down the road from Northampton, we got chatting about the leather industry and in particular the Institute for Creative Leather Technologies at the University. A few weeks later Mike invited me to visit the Institute for a tour.

Tanning vats of Fes, Morocco

My one and only experience of the leather production was on a holiday in Fes, Morocco – we stood on the balcony (of a leather goods store now I think about it) looking down on the smelly tanning vats whilst the workers, with seemingly no regard to health and safety, wandered the edges of the vats prodding the skins (Mike later told me that this traditional method is mainly kept going just for the tourists).

Things at The University of Nothampton’s Institute of Creative Leather Technologies are a little different. I was introduced to Rachel, the director of the institute, and, after Mike had finished his lecture, we headed off for some lunch to chat about the institute.

Selection of leather samples with different stains and finishes

Northampton has a rich history of shoemaking stretching from 1200*, not only due to the proximity of water and oak bark (both required for tanning in the early days), but the county’s location, so it probably should not have surprised me that the University has the world’s best leather research centre, with students attending from across the globe, and a fully working tannery. As well as covering the technical aspect of leather production, the institute works with other disciplines like fashion, development economics, podiatry, wastes management and leather conservation.

* for more information on Northampton’s shoe industry visit http://www.international-footwear-foundation.co.uk

The University of Northampton tannery

After lunch, I was given a tour around the facilities by Chris, a tannery technician demonstrator. View all the photos from the tour.

Producing leather is a surprisingly complicated process – rather than me incorrectly try and regurgitate details from the tour, you probably might want to have a read of the Wikipeida entry on the leather production process instead!

The tour started in the chemical and research labs – research areas include taking leathers to extremes of thinness, lightness and grip, as well as fire, cut and impact resistance for use in sports and performance. Some of the testing equipment for batch stretching and tearing of leather looked pretty impressive. I was also surprised to find an electron microscope in the Institute which is used by other departments at the University.

Salted goat hide

This was followed by a fascinating guided tour of the tannery itself – including the shed containing salted hides ready to start the process, the fleshing machine, the spinning drums mixing the various chemicals to prepare and tan the hides, the splitting machine, the shaving machine, the staking machine, the buffing machine and the glazing machine (most of which do sound like torture implements!). It is an amazingly detailed and complex process to take the raw ingredient and turn it into a specific leather ready to be used to create the final end product.

Drum of hides sloshing in chemicals

A massive thank you to Mike, Rachel and Chris for spending the time to give me a glimpse into how leather is manufactured, and I certainly have a new found respect for my leather boots and the effort and skill that went into them so I could go out and enjoy the outdoors.

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