Some things never really change…
While looking through my image archive I came upon some leather working illustrations dated to the early 15th century. All but one of the images below is from the extremely informative Mendel manuscript dated 1425 created at Nuremberg, in what is now Germany.
Creating leather from animal hides has been an important process for many thousands of years with various types of leather created dependent upon the intended use (e.g., shoes, belts, gloves, parchment, shields, ties, lariats, etc.). Creating quality leather from a hide not only requires in-depth knowledge of the process, a little chemistry, and a little bit of hard labor.
These illustrations are an invaluable snapshot in time and space of tradesmen plying their skills. We can learn from these. I’ve arranged the selected images below in an order that makes sense to me from the processes I have used or seen over many years. In my short journey to Morocco many years ago I was lucky to wander through the ancient tannery there and see leather being produced and products made on a remarkable scale in ways that have probably not changed in several millennia. That is what we see below.
Furrier – The furrier is sorting what appear to be “hair on” skins either for sale or for making warm clothing. This was northern Europe after all. The tradition of trapping or hunting fur-bearing animals is probably as old as human’s time in cold climates.
Soaking the hides – The first step in making leather often involves soaking the hide to hydrate it, sometimes even promoting a brief spell of bacterial growth to “slip” the hair. Most leather manufacturers, however, want to prevent any contamination and use other methods to swell the hide by adding caustic lime (a.k.a. slaked lime, slack lime, limewater, or Ca(OH)2). This tub might be a tanning tub containing tannins from plant material (hence the name “tanning”).
De-hair and fleshing (a.k.a. drudgery on a pole) – The man above is de-hairing a sheep skin on a fleshing beam; a fairly dull and not very fun project for me. My face probably resembles his when I do this task more than a few times in a row. He will then flip the skin over and clean the membranes, fats, etc. from the flesh side before a second bath in the caustic solution. For parchment, I understand that there was only a partial rinse after this but for soft and supple leathers, the skin is rinsed thoroughly to neutralize the pH then treated in a low pH (acidic) bath to make true tanned leather.
Final Scraping in the Frame – Skins are often stretched on a frame to dry and further scraped for a consistent and smooth surface. The hide above is destined to be parchment so it must be a perfect as possible.
What does all this become?
Just as today, people need and use leather for its plasticity, strength, and durability.
Here we see a cordwainer making shoes. It looks like he in the midst of attaching a sole while sitting at his workbench. The simple tools of the trade are laid in front of him and some finished shoes are displayed behind. Patterns or forms hang on the wall and his pail, probably for water, sits at his feet.
Our workman above is showing leather hose, a popular bit of clothing in its day.
The purse maker is doing a bit of fancy work while his scraps lie beneath his feet; a nice detail.
I’m not sure what this guy is actually doing. If anyone knows for certain, please let me know!
Here we have another shoemaker (cordwainer) hard at work at his bench. Shoes have always been in demand. That is a classic shoemaker’s knife on the bench,
The belt maker had an assortment of belts and is in the midst of punching a hole. Good timing for capturing this image.
Another bag maker creating a classic belt pouch and displaying his wares.
Another take on the cordwainer from the same period by a different artist with a couple of other tools in the background (from the Landauer manuscript).
Why are these guys all old?
A little background – an interesting story of the Zwölfbrüderhausstiftungen (the Twelve Brother’s House).
From BiblioOdyssey, a fine, but sadly dormant weblog: “In 14th century Germany, a wealthy trader by the name of Mendel established a charitable endowment in the city of Nuremberg, known as the Twelve Brothers House Foundation (Zwölfbrüderhausstiftungen). A dozen elderly and unwell (but capable) citizens were (I assume) given a place to live in exchange for their performing work duties.
Although the house life and routine was said to have been inspired by the example of the apostles, there was a fairly anti-clerical or anti-religious tone to the rules and priests were formally excluded from being taken in as one of the ‘brothers’. The house served as a model for the commencement of similar charity foundations in other German cities.
Mendel’s grandson began the practice in the 15th century of having sketches made of each of the brothers engaged in their chosen employment together with detailed notes about the tools and practices relating to their work. The manuscripts were updated until (I think) the beginning of the 19th century, although portraits of craftsmen engaged in their work were only produced in the 15th and 16th centuries.”
I hope you enjoy learning from these images as much as I do.