Taming the hide adds diversity to First Friday artist line-up
Some early childhood impressions are hard to shake. For Hermann resident Molly Monahan, some of her most fond memories as a kid were in her parents shoe repair shop. She grew up loving the smell of leather, Kiwi polish and Fiebings leather dye.
“As a child, I loved the feel of a new hide on my bare feet,” says Molly.
Along with her parents, Mark and Sally Borzillo, they operate the Saleigh Mountain Leather Co. on 4th Street. Molly and mom Sally are featured artists on the Hermann Art Council’s First Friday events. After all, leather crafting has been practiced since the Middle Ages and not only is it considered an art, it is one few people know much about. Who would have thought one of the main attractants is the sense of smell? Sally says nothing smells quite like a cobbler shop.
“You wouldn’t believe the number of people that come in here and say, ‘I love the smell [of this place],’” says Sally. “And I say, well, you can smell for free, because it does smell good!”
Mom Sally started this whole foray into leather and The Advertiser-Courier asked her about the start of what has become a way to make a living.
“We had horses growing up in West County and my dad always wore good boots,” she begins. “When you have horses, there’s always [leather] stuff to fix.”
She says at the young age of 17, she was fortunate to apprentice with a man whose grandfather had been a carriage maker in San Francisco. “I sold my wares on Telegraph Ave. in Berkeley, and on Wharf Street in San Francisco.”
But she was ready to come home, so she moved back to a Missouri farm in 1975, bringing her skills with her, eventually marrying husband Mark and having four kids. They opened a shop on Shiller Street then operated from a building near their home, before winding up on 4th Street.
Molly (who also has a Linn Tech degree in Powersports Technology) does loads of repair work while Sally has her roots not only in repair work, but in crafting custom work, though she’d like to slow down from that side of the business.
She rattles off the benefits of working with leather, its durability, workability and the fact that it is usable art—not just hang-it-on-your-wall art.
“It’s wearable, beautiful and elegant,” adds Molly, “and it lasts—it gets better with age.”
The utilitarian uses for leather objects are almost endless—there’s footwear, handbags and luggage, clothing, accessories like belts and watch bands, jewelry, journal covers and pet collars to name a few. Type in “Etsy leather” on a Google search and you can get 78,600,000 results. Leather as a material and a craft is popular and from the craftsman’s end, it’s as complex a hobby or profession as you want to make it. There can be lots to know and it’s imperative to understand the medium.
Leather is created by tanning animal rawhide and skins. According to the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, “Tanning is a process that stabilizes the proteins, particularly collagen, of the raw hide to increase the thermal, chemical and microbiological stability of the hides and skins, making it suitable for a wide variety of end applications.”
Collagen is a protein that makes up the connective tissue of the hide. The principal difference between raw and tanned hides is that raw hides dry out to form a hard, inflexible material that, when rewetted, will putrefy, while tanned material dries to a flexible form that does not become putrid when rewetted.
Molly and Sally talk about the different types of leather they use for making items, talking about grades of leather (i.e. top-grain and layer-splits) and the tanning methods used. One common type of leather they use is produced by vegetable tanning.
Again, referring to Wikipedia, “Vegetable tanned leather is tanned using tannins extracted from vegetable matter, such as tree bark prepared in bark mills. It is the oldest known method. It is supple and light brown in color, with the exact shade depending on the mix of materials and the color of the skin. The color tan derives its name from the appearance of undyed vegetable-tanned leather.
Vegetable-tanned leather is not stable in water; it tends to discolor, and if left to soak and then dry, it shrinks and becomes harder. This is a feature of oak-bark-tanned leather that is used to advantage in traditional shoemaking. In hot water, it shrinks drastically and partly congeals, becoming rigid and eventually brittle.”
Sally talks about cutting patterns out of cowhide, cutting across the grain of the leather so it doesn’t stretch, as wanton to do cutting with the grain. Depending on the product, belt or sandal, if the pattern follows the grain, the leather will stretch where you don’t want it to stretch. That’s because a cow’s hide needs to stretch in one way as the cow grows and the belly becomes full. So any product made from the hide on this part of the cow will be stretchy, made less so by the cut.
Molly says it can work to the cobbler’s advantage when making boots, through a process called “lasting,” which needs a certain amount of stretch to form the upper boot foot shape to fasten to the boot sole.
Sally demonstrates with a mold or jig mold she made from wood to form (in this instance) an iPhone case.
“You can take a piece of wet leather and push this [top mold] down on the leather [that was laid over the bottom mold] and work it, so you’ve got a molded piece you can stitch to a back piece,” she explains.
This iPhone case would be an example of a product made from vegetable-tanned leather.
“This is the stuff you can tool and form,” says Molly.
Leather is made up of layers. The first layer is the epidermis (removed in the tanning process), followed by the “grain” (small, tight collagen bundles), followed by a transition zone of small, tight collagen bundles and larger collagen bundles, followed by the “corium,” the larger collagen bundles. These layers cover the animal’s flesh.
Full grain leather
There are different grades of leather based on how the hide is sliced. Full-grain leather shows the best qualities—i.e. what it can do for the craftsman. It's sturdy enough to give structure, yet, it is luxuriously soft to the touch. It hasn't been manipulated by a sanding process, so it incorporates the aesthetics of the animal, but rarely has significant flaws. Because it is preserved and intact, the leather fibers themselves are durable.
Also, there are fewer water molecules within the leather, and the grain lasts an incredibly long time. Full-grain leather won't wear out the way other, lesser, leathers can. Instead of wearing out, it will age well and achieve a rich patina, which is a thin surface layer on the leather that gives life and character to each leather piece.
Top grain leather
Beneath full-grain, top-grain is the next highest leather quality. It's a little more flexible as it has been sanded and given a finish coat. This coating can make the leather itself feel a bit more like plastic and less breathable. However, this layer makes it a little more stain and water resistant when compared to full-grain leather.
Also, top-grain can be found everywhere. Because it has been sanded down and buffed out, top-grain leather can incorporate the lesser portions of the hide with more flaws. It's quite a bit thinner due to this sanding process, but it can develop a slight patina over time.
The next level down are the suedes, which includes the corium and the transition layer.
“It’s leather, so it’s still sturdy, but it’s not as strong as the top grain,” says Sally.
Where do the women source their leather for their projects?
Missouri has a tannery by the name of Hermann Oak Leather in St. Louis. There is Horween Leather Co. in Chicago, Wickett & Craig in Curwensville, Pa. and S.B. Foot Tanning Co. in Red Wing, Mn., along with about 90 others of various sizes, scattered around the U.S., so it isn’t a dying industry.
Sally says the people that come into the shop for the First Friday events or just during the week want to know about a whole lot of different aspects of their business.
“We just try to educate people,” she said. “We grew up with good leather in the 70s—we never had a belt made of bad leather.”
The message that both Molly and Sally want people to know about leather is that quality leather lasts and is well worth the price of a well-crafted product. And they say buyer beware.
“If a product says “Genuine Leather,” it is probably a leather product with paper and sawdust pressed with glue.”