Fish Skin – Trash or Luxury Item?

Do not be fooled by fish skin – it is much more than a waste product of the fish and food industry. Craftsmen, artists and fashion houses appreciate its beauty and robustness, turning it into exquisite cloth, accessories, pictures or even book covers. Once treated, the skin is known as fish or ocean leather, a name that better reflects the quality and attractiveness of the material.

Memories from the past

For centuries fish leather has been used for practical and decorative purposes. With more than 6,000 years of history, the people from the Hezhen ethnic group (northeast China) are known as “the fish-skin tribe” because their clothes made of large fish, usually salmon. Their bridal dresses are particularly remarkable. Although the craft has almost disappeared in modern times, some have rescued it and, in June 2006, the skill of processing fish skin was one of the first listed as an intangible cultural heritage of China.

Before the introduction of tanning in Iceland after the World War II, people from the western fjords made shoes from the Atlantic wolfish. Untanned, they were not durable shoes; the skins were simply cleaned and stretched to dry on wooden gables. People mostly wore them as slippers or in the hay fields when harvesting grass.

Stingrays have a special place in this context: The skin has long been appreciated not only for its durability, but also for its exclusive and decorative character. Powerful samurai clans in Japan used stingray skin to cover the hand guard and scabbard of sabers to provide a secure grip. In exceptional cases, the upper part of the armor was made of stingray to protect the chest of the warrior.

In Europe, the skins became fashionable in the 18th century, in part because of the influence of the Marquise de Pompadour, a favorite of the French king, Louis XV. In the 19th century, during the Art Deco period, craftsmen used stingray skins to decorate furniture and smaller objects.

Turning skin into fish leather

Salmon, eel, cod and more exotic fish are the species most often selected to become fish leather. Each species has a distinctive pattern that becomes apparent after the scales are removed. To the untrained eye, some fish leather could be mistaken for reptile skin.

To become leather, fish skins are dried in the open air or tanned. Experts believe tanning ensures greater durability. Tanning can be organic, chemical or a mixture of methods. Instructive videos on tanning are available on the Internet. One of them, ” Salmon clothes-Sweden,” explains the tanning process and provides images of finished clothes, shoes and accessories.

A material loved by fashion houses and craftsmen

In view of its dimensions, fish leather is particularly suited for smaller items such as shoes, bags or purse. Those items may either be manufactured in large quantities or produced as exclusive handmade products. If sewn together, the leather may be used to make clothes as shown in the above-mentioned video. Fish leather may also be glued on a support and used as a mosaic for decorative purposes.

Designers and fashion houses are enthusiastic about this amazing material. Some use fish leather in specific collections, such as Dior-designed shoes made of stingray leather. Others brands – Delage or ABP in Paris’ First Arrondissement – specialize in fine leather crafts. Exclusive shops offer customized shoes, watchstraps, bands and other smaller leather goods of different fish leathers such as perch, sturgeon, stingray or shark, which are appreciated by a wealthy clientele

Fish leather is also used in other fine crafts. Fascinated by fish leather, Louisa Pihl Kristensen, a young Danish bookbinder, experiments with it. In particular, she has had splendid results covering books with stingray skin.

Furniture-making is another interesting example of the uses of fish leather. The expertise accumulated in France during the Art Deco period was mostly lost between the two world wars when the material went out of fashion. Fortunately, a young student at the Ecole Boulle, the famed Parisian public school of fine arts and crafts and applied arts, received support from the school to research on the subject. Currently, Jean Perfettini is an internationally-recognized expert in restoring old furniture decorated with stingray leather. He also receives orders for new furniture as the material is once again highly appreciated in certain circles in France and abroad.

The uses of fish leather are limited only by the user’s imagination. When on her beloved island of Laesoe, between Denmark and Sweden, Rita Buch Hansen gets leftovers fish skins from her local fish shop and dries them in the open air to turn them into amazing landscapes inspired by the scenic island.

What could be rubbish for the bin turns out to be a resource for beautiful and delightful products. Fish leather is a dream material. It is as strong as cow leather and as exotic as snakeskin. With its soft, supple strength and wide variety of patterns, it offers endless creative possibilities.