Passion for Excellence
Keough Update #16: LABYRINTH SUBLIME
Chieftain Goat Leather from Hewits — May 9, 2011
Following a lovely Easter with family and friends, and then hosting a joyous festival of folk dance, I’m back at Friesens in Altona, Manitoba continuing the inspection of the collated pages of LABYRINTH SUBLIME: THE INSIDE PASSAGE. Pat is on Salt Spring, busy being a great father for our son Glen, and is behaving himself nursing his ankle while working with our stone mason on rock landscaping at our home. It’s quite a sacrifice for us to be apart so long; in fact we’ve never been away from one another like this before.
In Georgetown, Ontario, some 2,000 kilometres distant, the master binders at Felton Bookbindery are preparing the first production proofs using preliminary pages forwarded earlier. All binding materials have arrived including Irish Linen thread and tapes, French flocked velvet, and our initial shipment of Chieftain leather. This traditional leather is supplied by J. Hewit and Sons of Livingston, Scotland. Today’s update shares information about Hewit’s Chieftain leather, a morocco. And you’ll see several photos below.
Unless you are a book collector, you may be unfamiliar that morocco has quite a different meaning than Morocco. Definitions are in most dictionaries. Here’s one from the Antiquarian Bookseller’s Association of America:
morocco — a leather made from goat hides; usually used in
high quality or fine bindings for the interesting texture of the leather;
originally tanned with sumac in the country of Morocco.
For ANTARCTICA and also LABYRINTH SUBLIME we specifically selected Hewit’s Chieftain Goat leather for many reasons including:
— the distinctive grain of morocco...described as thousands of tiny circles crowded together. In Chieftain leather, this texture is natural and beautiful. Far less expensive imitations are available where a poor quality leather has been embossed with a morocco-like pattern.
— abrasion resistance... important given the weight of our books. Had we used calf leather, scuffs and scratches would have marred the covers almost immediately. Some designers specify purposefully scratched and battered leather, and indeed the distressed look does have rustic charm. However, you might concur with us that the stage between pristine-and-distressed is not so attractive.
— thin yet tough... qualities of grave importance for book bindings considering that the edges of the covers as well as the hinge will get a lot of wear. That goat leather is thin is appreciable on the inside covers at the corners, where the leather overlaps. Take a notice of ANTARCTICA’s inside cover corners. The overlaps are beautifully achieved without bulk; and believe us, the strength of the leather has been minimally affected at these corners. Had we selected cow leather (much less expensive than a quality morocco), we would have had to either accept a major build-up of bulk at the corners; or, had the binders shaved off all the suede from the underside of the cow leather to reduce thickness, we would have had to accept greatly reduced leather strength — neither alternative being good. With goat leather, the characteristics of being thin and strong are compatible.
There are few tanneries in the world that produce leather expressly for fine bindings. Among the most renown of these speciality tanners is J. Hewit and Sons Ltd. The archival Chieftain goat leather produced by Hewit has quite a different tannage and properties than, for example, glove leather (which must be stretchy), shoe leather (for which a 10-year life is quite adequate), or upholstery leather (chromium-tanned for cost efficiency and water-resistance).
Hewit has been producing leather for over 200 years and was founded at least seven generations ago by ancestors of today’s Managing Director Roger Barlee. In 1849 the tannery was expanded by Janet Hewit and her young sons following the death of her husband; hence the firm’s name, J. Hewit & Sons. Edinburgh being a centre of publishing, early in the company’s history Hewit produced fine book leathers, also bagpipe leather and other speciality leathers. In 1975, Hewits was granted the Royal Warrant of Appointment to Her Majesty the Queen in recognition of the firm’s history in supplying leather to the Royal Library at Windsor Castle. You might be interested to have a view of a very special, limited-edition book commissioned by HRH The Prince of Wales, The Highgrove Florilegium which is quarter-bound with Hewit’s leather. You can see this royal publication along side several exquisitely bound artisan books showcased on the Hewit’s website. Click on any one of the books featured to read more and see detailed photos.
The Chieftain Goat leather produced by Hewit is 100% vegetable tanned using extracts of sumac, tara and myrobalan plants. We were curious to learn that tara (Cesalpina spinosa) is a long-lived, small tree indigenous to Peru. Tara grows in the wild of the Andes Mountains at about 1400 meters elevation, primarily in that one country. Even Inca and pre-Inca cultures used tara as dyeing component, tanning agent and as a medicine. The fruit of this tree, the husks of which contains the tannins, is gathered by hand and is laboriously carried on the backs of people and burros to markets. The sale of these fruits is an important source of income for campesinos families of rural Peru.
Traditional vegetable tanning requires great skill on the part of the tanner, and the process requires four to five weeks from start to finish! By way of comparison, chromium tannage can be done in a day, and thus is the tannage of the vast majority of leather worldwide. Today there are even products that are labelled “genuine leather” that are actually a composite of leather scraps, mushed together and then embossed, dyed, and sold by the meter for such items as menus, wallets and purses. Chieftain is indeed the real McCoy, as natural as leather can be.
The fascinating story of Hewit’s leather is very well told by the firm’s directors in a 10-part series entitled Manufacture of Leather shared on their website. Described are the presumed origins of leather by cavemen (cavewomen??) in prehistoric times, improvements developed by the ancient Romans who used leather for armour, tents, horse harnesses and so on, through to an overview of manufacturing leather at Hewits and also the company’s recent development of an archival tannage to counteract the corrosive effect of air pollution on leather. Here are links to these articles should you wish to read more.
Part 1. Part 4. Part 7. Part 10.
Part 2. Part 5. Part 8.
Part 3. Part 6. Part 9.
With very best wishes,
Rosemarie and Pat