Our recent meeting of the “Curating Proteins and Fibers” reading group delved deep into leather—a material renowned for its malleability, versatility, and durability, among other notable qualities. Our reading group discussion, however, focused on leather and artificial leather alternatives to situate current interests within the textile industry in using alternative materials. Of course, not only do alternatives or “artificial leather” have different properties from the material they are intending to mimic; the turn away from animal-based materials also presents different limitations to scaling up the material. As historians of science, we sought to understand what factors have motivated the search to replace animal skin over the longue durée.
We identified three items to read together, spanning from primary sources, through museum conservation, to a historical research article from the Global South. We started with Prakrati Bhargava’s article, “Modernization of Leather Industry and Chequered History of Technical Education in Colonial Kanpur,” which describes the historical process of leather production in India and explains the ways leather demanded the creation of professionals and institutions adept at developing the industry. Although the text deals with leather, apart from a quick mention, there is a gap when it comes to the animal species raised in this production system. Additionally, the traditional and local system of leather production is sometimes described as “backward,” creating a certain dichotomy between Traditional x Industrial, Modern x Outdated, which the reading group members viewed with reservations.
We read David J. Vandyke-Lee’s text, “Skin and Leather, Reasons for Deterioration and Conservation,” a technical text from the 1970s aimed at solving the most common problems in leather conservation. This is a valuable primary source from the field of museum conservation that illustrates a tendency of the time, that is, to demonstrate state of the art scientific techniques—even though they are considered harsh and harmful to the material, and thus obsolete by today’s standards. The way leather interacts with the environment and can be worn down by it might partially explain why materials scientists and the materials' industry have sought ways to replace it. Our discussion also covered Tom Hogarth’s “Have ‘Vegan’ Materials Shot Themselves in the Foot?” from the International Leather Maker. Approached as a primary source, the article presents an unfiltered view into the leather industry’s reservations about the feasibility of substituting animals in production. While emphasizing the ethical and environmental imperatives to find alternatives to natural leather, it underscores the market’s disappointment with innovations like mushroom-made leather, which led to notable financial repercussions. In general, the discussion combined with the readings made us reflect on:
- What are the social and cultural reasons behind the search for new animal-based materials besides leather?
- Which properties of animal-based materials could not be mimicked by the industry?
- How does a deeper understanding of leather amplify our comprehension of animal fibers?
- To what extent does thinking through leather sharpen our analyses of animal fibers?
Bhargava, Prakrati. "Modernization of Leather Industry and Chequered History of Technical Education in Colonial Kanpur." Indian Journal of History of Science 57, no. 2 (2022): 102–114.
Hogarth, Tom. "Have 'Vegan' Materials Shot Themselves in the Foot?" International Leather Maker, July 17, 2023, https://internationalleathermaker.com/have-vegan-materials-shot-themselves-in-the-foot/.
Vandyke-Lee, David J. "Skin and Leather, Reasons for Deterioration and Conservation." Newsletter (Museum Ethnographers Group), no. 8 (1979): 25–32.