Fish… Leather?…really?

Good news! our first grant application for Land & Sea was successful — a big thank you to the City of Vancouver for funding the first stage of this project, which will allow Kamala Todd, Tracy Williams, Lori Snyder, Kelty Jean McKerracher, Sharon and me to explore working with nettle fibre and fish leather.

And many of you are thinking: “…fish…. leather? …. (ew)”

A fellow that I worked with a long time ago had a fish leather wallet and he raved about its durability. Sharon’s friend Peter Ananin from Scotland has a fish leather tannery as a social enterprise. Tracy Williams says that in the old days, people would make shoes out of fish leather and coat the soles in sand and pitch — and a friend of Sharon’s sent us a photo of a pair of traditional fish-leather snow boots she saw at a museum in Japan.

Turns out that making leather out of fish skins is a very old, worldwide practice — and though it’s uncommon, it’s still going on today. Crazy what a search on Youtube will turn up — references to everything from post-WWII Europe to contemporary Kenya, and beyond.

We used salmon skins from a commercial kitchen as a medium for practice at our Tanning Circle in February; and except for the fact that they were thin skins and we probably under-tanned them with the alum (I got the chance to speak with Meg Cur of Crows Nest Wildcraft about it), it was a really fascinating experience with compelling results. My subsequent tests (shown in the bottom two photos in the featured collage) have been even more intriguing: the same skins from February are about twice as thick and tough, now that they’ve had the chance to sit in a tannin bath for a few months.

I look forward to experimenting with a variety of fish skins from Skipper Otto’s Community Supported Fishery, one of our partners on the Land & Sea project; and using the skins in a series of fish-leather-tanning workshops we’ll be rolling out in the fall/winter — keep your eyes open for that announcement.

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