Leather can be made from almost any skin and that includes making fish skin leather. It might be difficult to imagine fish skin as leather because the skin is very thin, but it is very strong and has good water resistant qualities.
Fish skin leather is made from skins of non-endangered fish species including salmon, shark, carp, bass, sturgeon and catfish. The art of making leather out of fish skin, is an ancestral craft, which has almost been lost due to industrial techniques that have taken over in leather production.
Fish canneries normally dump the skins in the ocean, but over the past twenty years, this ancient craft is being revived and fish skin leather has been under development and is being brought back to life. By using a by-product of the fish industry, a waste item is turned into footwear, garments and other useful household articles.
Production of Fish Skin Leather
Fish skin can be turned into leather just like any other animal hide and the process takes about a month for the skin to be ready to be used.
- The first step is to clean the inside of the skin by scraping it to remove any flesh. In a commercial setup a fleshing machine is used to remove any excess flesh. To remove the scales on the outside of the skin, the skin is scraped in the opposite direction to which the scales grow. Cleaned fish skin looks a bit like the skin from reptiles.
- The skins are placed in a drum with chemicals for the tanning process. The skins stay in the drum where it spins around for a week. Fish are cold-blooded creatures, so the skin does not like high temperatures.
- Care needs to be taken with the temperature and the skins must not be allowed to boil. This removes the oil and any remaining flesh and odour from the fish skins. The special tanning process prevents the fish skins from becoming hard and stiff once all the oil has been removed.
- Once the fish skins are removed from the drums, it is washed and dyed and then stretched over a board overnight. This helps to dry the skins and it is then softened to produce fish skin leather.
Tanning is done to make the skin supple and prevent it from rotting. It is a chemical and mechanical process with the skins being fleshed, soaked, churned and vacuum dried. The first item that is needed in tanning is a tannic acid. Industrial tanneries currently use mineral salts, such as chromium salts, as tannins. It is a chemical compound that easily mix with other substances, and therefore production time is reduced.
The fish skin that is mostly used in leather production is salmon, so we will have a closer look at the production of salmon skin leather.
Salmon Skin Leather
Salmon skin leather is a sustainable new and innovative material from salmon, that is organically farmed for human consumption. Skins are also derived from salmon that lives in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
The eco friendly leather is made by re purposing a by-product of the commercial salmon industry, namely salmon skin. Salmon skin is normally discarded, but through re purposing salmon skin, a new leather alternative is available.
Salmon skin leather has some unique properties, not only physically, but aesthetically as well. It is a very strong, thin and flexible material and more eco friendly than normal leather derived from cattle skin. It has been compared to snake skin leather, but it has a softer, suede like feel to it.
Two different processing methods are used to make salmon leather and they will produce different color effects. The color base plays a crucial part in the dyeing process.
- Normal processing method will result in a solid color without any contrasts. The natural grey color of salmon skin is removed, allowing the leather to be dyed any color, even white. The resulting color is solid, without the natural two-tone effect of the belly and the back. The scale pattern is also less noticeable. Most salmon leather is processed in this way, hence it being called “normal”.
- NAC method would retain the natural two-tone look of salmon skin, with contrast between the pale belly and the dark back. The scaly texture is more noticeable and the grey base color remains. The range of colors that are available with the NAC method is more limited and white for instance is not possible. Salmon is naturally darker during the winter than the summer, so when working with undyed NAC, this seasonal difference would show. It will not have an effect on dyed salmon leather.
Both washable salmon leather and vegetable tanned leather are produced. The soft feel and texture make it an ideal material for protective covers of personal electronic devices, such as laptops and mobile phones.
Bigger pieces and rolls of salmon leather is also being produced. Several patented adhesion and seaming processes are used to make big pieces or rolls of leather. It is also available in the actual fish size for smaller articles.
Properties of Salmon Skin Leather
- One hundred percent of the salmon skin can be used, so there is no loss.
- Salmon skin leather is more eco friendly than traditional leather.
- It has a completely unique three-dimensional natural texture.
- It is a completely innovative and new material.
- Salmon skin leather is both stronger and more flexible than natural leather. The strength is due to cross fibers in the skin.
- Fish skin leather is stain and scratch resistant.
- It is water repellent and doesn’t need polishing.
- Original patterns are available to order.
- Several color combinations are available.
- It is available in large linear panels or actual fish size for smaller articles.
Is fish skin leather eco friendly?
The fish leather industry is still small scale and many make use of a circular economy. It means that many of them are quite secretive about the processes and materials that they use. Production facilities are found as far afield as Lapland, Iceland, Canada, Mexico, the Philippines, Europe and Africa.
These are some of the eco friendly and sustainable methods that are used.
- A production plant in Iceland makes use of geothermal energy, making it more sustainable and eco friendly.
- There is a small leather workshop in Archachon Bay, Bordeaux, France where they are using eco-responsible methods in a circular economy. Fish skins are obtained from the local fishermen and fishmongers, thereby turning a waste product into fish leather. Local plants, such as crushed mimosa root bark, are used as tannins. It is a more natural alternative to chemicals and it is a zero waste process.
- A Dutch company is making sustainable salmon leather.
- A Romanian start-up company is using organic and synthetic tanning methods, without any toxic chrome compounds, to produce eco friendly and sustainable salmon skin leather.
- Any skins that are damaged are used for producing pet food, further reducing any waste.
- Vegetable tanning refers to leather tanned with plant materials and these would normally be oak, chestnut and spruce bark.
- Banana extract, which is sustainable and natural, is used to get rid of any odours at a production facility in Kenya.
- Scales can be used for art projects and in jewellery making further reducing any possible waste.
The price of fish skin leather is still high and more expensive than calf leather, but it is creating new opportunities for artisans and designers. Fish skin leather is used to produce belts, shoes, sword handles, jewelry, bags and other accessories. Design houses like Dior, Gucci and Prada are using fish skin leather to produce exclusive footwear and fashion articles.
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