Smell the glove: the pleasures of leather

I recently started leathercraft as a hobby. My first project was a refurb of a battered tote bag with ripped, coffee stained lining. I took it apart, relined it with rich blue denim from some cut up jeans, and re-stitched with white linen thread. I re-used the jeans’ back pockets, kept the original maker’s logo too.

If only I’d got into leather at the same time as perfume. I could’ve had a fusion blog with a Spinal Tap reference for the name … yes, this should have been called “Smell the Glove”. (Stunning Fran Drescher with her awesome Queens accent was perfection as record label rep Bobbi Flekman, disgusted by the Tap’s cover art for Smell the Glove. “You put a greased naked woman on all fours with a dawg collar around her neck, and a leash, and a man’s arm extended out up to here, holding onto the leash, and pushing a black glove in her face to sniff it. You don’t find that offensive? You don’t find that sexist?”)

‘Dawg collar’

Leather provokes strong responses. It’s a fascinatingly flexible complex and long-lasting material. Vegans call it ‘death fabric’. And of course it has a rich varied history in fashion, fetish, luggage, horse riding and falconry. I often have to backpeddle and explain my new hobby: when I said to a colleague ‘I’m getting into leathercraft’ his eyebrows shot up: ‘Woooo, kinky.’

Two snippets from Patrick Süskind’s novel Perfume illustrate leather’s weird contradictions: its rank blood, hair, guts and piss origins clash against the refinement of the finished product. When you have a beautifully soft, elegant bag or sofa in front of you, it is easy to forget this is literally cloth made from dead pickled animal skin. Here’s Süskind’s description of an eighteenth century Paris tannery:
“He scraped the meat from bestially stinking hides, watered them down, dehaired them, limed, bated, and fulled them, rubbed them down with pickling dung, chopped wood, stripped bark from birch and yew, climbed down into the tanning pits filled with caustic fumes, layered the hides and pelts just as the journeymen ordered him, spread them with smashed gallnuts, covered this ghastly funeral pyre with yew branches and earth. Years later, he would have to dig them up again and retrieve these mummified hide carcasses—now tanned leather—from their grave.”

Later in the novel, delivery of a batch of finished hides from the tannery to a perfumer:
“He held the candle to one side to prevent the wax from dripping on the table and stroked the smooth surface of the skins with the back of his fingers. Then he pulled back the top one and ran his hand across the velvety reverse side, rough and yet soft at the same time. They were very good goatskins. Just made for Spanish leather.* As they dried they would hardly shrink, and when correctly pared they would become supple again; he could feel that at once just by pressing one between his thumb and index finger. They could be impregnated with scent for five to ten years. They were very, very good hides—perhaps he could make gloves from them, three pairs for himself and three for his wife, for the trip to Messina.”
*Spanish leather or ‘Peau d’Espagne’ was a blend of essential and animal oils for scenting leather – particularly chamois gloves worn by the aristocracy – dating back to the sixteenth century. But it was also used as a perfume from the early twentieth century, a sexy one at that. Sexologist Havelock Ellis, one of those British eugenicist late Victorian polymaths, noted “it is said by some, probably with a certain degree of truth, that Peau d’Espagne is of all perfumes that which most nearly approaches the odor of a woman’s skin; whether it also suggests the odor of leather is not so clear”. Some trad British perfumeries like Geo F Trumper in London’s Mayfair still produce Spanish leather cologne, so do Truefitt & Hill.

So what does leather smell of? Perhaps a trace of the original animal, plus a blend of the many tanning agents, oils, fats, dyes and finishes it has been treated with. Freshly tanned leather, especially from traditional methods, has a fleshy mouth filling meatiness to it, almost like smoked bacon. I have a vivid memory of coming home from a trip to Marrakesh and leaving a pungent handbag on the table, and our cat’s eyes rolling back to the whites as he sniffed it. I’ve washed a very old briefcase with saddle soap, and got a strong musty smell like wet dog or when a wool coat gets soaked in the rain. Also worth noting: many leather treatments smell wonderful. I conditioned our sofa with Avel renovating cream, which has a rich smooth wealthy scent I would happily wear as fragrance. I thought I’d use half the tub, but my parched sofa drank the lot, sucked all the moisture right out of the cloth. This really brought home how mich leather is skin: you have to moisturise it regularly, or it dries, cracks and flakes.

Ancient methods of tanning leather were pretty vile (see that Perfume extract) so historically tanneries were located on the outskirts of towns. Across the Indian subcontinent, leather was seen as a degrading trade, and is still associated with Dalit (untouchable) castes. Partly because tanneries use dung, animal brains or urine; partly because it involves handling dead animals; partly because cows are sacred (tannery owners in India are usually Muslim).

The tanning process fascinates me; it is ancient, as far back as 7000 BC. Tanning agents cause chemical change to the structure of the collagen in the hide, converting it from skin to leather. Once tanned, it won’t rot, it’s incredibly strong and long lasting, but also soft and pliable. The word tan references the brown colour and the use of tree barks, particularly oak, for tanning (tannum – Latin for oak bark; German tannenbaum – fir tree). Tannins are astringent chemicals with a dry bitter flavour, naturally occuring in these barks and in other plant sources. We are familiar with tannins from tea, coffee, and wine – it is present in wine because it has leached in from the oak casks.

When you think about it, leather perfume is a weird enterprise: building a replica of the scent of dead skin from plant extracts, in order to apply to living skin. We can’t distil scent from leather itself; instead a close association is created from botanical products, especially those used in tanning. Birch tar is often used, so is a synthetic chemical compound called isoquinoline.

For my fortieth in March 2021 I blew my birthday cheques on a bottle of Chanel Cuir de Russie. I couldn’t have a party with dancing and drinking, but I could smell fucking fabulous. Like Peau D’Espagne, like English Leather, Cuir de Russie is the name of a genre rather than a unique name; every big house had its own Russie in the early twentieth century. Chanel’s has been around since 1924, described by Luca Turin as ‘the reference birch tar leather’. The opening reminds me a bit of Arpège. Soft, buttery, with a faintly metallic blood tang – but not in that meaty honking bacon way. It just smells calm, elegant and refined, like hushed luxury. My only complaint it I could actually take it a dash stronger. It reminds me of visiting a friend who was working at the Royal Automobile Club in Pall Mall. I just needed to collect something quickly, but he invited me in past the grand entrance with a classic car parked in it, for a tour of their private members rooms. These were hushed, restful, low lit spaces filled with antique leather chesterfields and persian rugs. An ideal interior in which to wear Cuir de Russie, order an excellent Scotch and read in peace.

I’ve also been enjoying revisiting my 1980s bottle of vintage Shalimar at the moment. Having been underwhelmed by it and much preferring Opium in my previous comparative review, I’ve changed my mind and can understand the Shalimar fuss. I get a definite leathery – vanilla – lemon kick from it.

My unfulfilled leather sniff wish list includes: Robert Piguet’s Bandit from 1944, (composed by Germaine Cellier, one of the few women perfumers of that time); Knize Ten, a 1920s Viennese number associated with tailors, polo, Marlene Dietrich and James Dean; and the more recent Lonestar Memories by Swiss niche perfumer Andy Tauer, inspired by cowboys round the campfire.

I give Cuir de Russie 11 / 10. Most perfumes only go up to ten. This one goes to eleven. That’s one louder.

Leathery links

Bob Dylan’s Boots of Spanish Leather.

“People love leather belts but hate the people who make them.” A fascinating essay about the dangers Dalits and muslims face working in India’s contemporary leather trade, particularly with Hindu nationalism on the rise.

An excellent podcast about Anthropodermic Biocodicology – the study of books bound in human skin. (Aaaaaaaaaaaagh!!!) Seriously, this is avery entertaining pick for an autumnal Halloween listen. There are suspected human skin books in libraries and private collections around the world, and the interviewees (a scientist and a librarian) have confirmed authenticity and origins of several.

James Berry – LeFrenchCrafter – a lovely YouTube leatherwork channel from a posh English guy living in Paris. He often does refurbs of old pieces from markets, here he resuscitates two sixty year old Swiss army ammunition pouches to make clutch bags for his girlfriend.

Gorgeous leather care creams for shoes bags and sofas (Creme Saphir is what Hermès use on their bags).

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