Friday, March 21, 2008

Wolfgang Leather Genius:

Wolf is quite the character. I am constantly amazed how many people are willing to speak to me at length regarding the old days of leather and how few people there are out there left to interview. In my pursuits of vintage clothing I would often find myself in the basements of stores of mostly older Jewish people who were well acquainted with my grandfather, great uncle or my landlord. As I would be digging through their old stock and old treasures they would regale me with tales of the heydays of the schamata business, before the big corporations took over family run business’ and these retailers and wholesalers could still make a living. I was buying a pair of 1930s wool knickers and the proprietor asked my family name. She was about 84 years old and then told me she was giving birth to her son right next to my bubby! When my grandma was giving birth to my uncle Butch, wow what a thought. There is just way too much history and wisdom in the clothing for me to share here on the site. But I digress…

Wolf explained many things about the old tannages and process’ that went into making the hard leathers that made up my vintage leather jackets. Chrome tanning has been around since the 19th century and in the industrial age where multiple use garments and speed were important factors, chrome tanning very quickly replaced vegetable tanning. Chrome tanning takes relatively little time compared to the month required to veg. tan, also chrome tanning produces a skin more receptive to dying and produces a more waterproof hide. Wolf told me that in the early days they used a combination to produce a tough hide, the initial tannage would be a chrome tan or a syntan, and then the hides would be finished with a vegetable tan and shrinkage.

Syntan is a synthetic tannage that has the characteristics of vegetable tannage without the smell and color negatives associated with vegetable tanning.

Early vegetable tanned leather was typically tanned with sumac, oakbark or nogwood, then oiled, then milled and then shrunk dried This shrinkage results in the compression of the leather fibres and a 30% to 40% loss in size of the hide. This accentuates the grain and strengthens and hardens the leather; two effects not sought after in todays leather market.

Black leather cannot be made with the oak tannages as it bleeds colour, it cannot be made with the syntan cause the colour bleaches out, according to Wolf it was made with logwood. Logwood was the perfect tannage for black leather. Ive even found a valuable copy of a book detailing the various tannages and chemistries for tanning liquors down to the smallest details for the various regions of North America. Its amazing to begin to understand what went into making these classic American jackets, all the expertise and knowhow that is lost or otherwise moved on. The next bunch of postings Im going to explore why these old tannages and leathers are important and how we are failing as consumers and buyers by purchasing cheaply made, poorly sewn and designed butter soft cheap vintage replica jackets. It is super important to remember that when you purchase something made overseas, not just the local economy culture and knowhow is diminished but that the environment, ecology and global health is diminished as well. Many companies are exploring the old ways of production and design and many are succeeding in many aspects. Perfection is always the goal!

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