Hakai Magazine

Fish skin tanner Tracy Williams holding fish skin
Fish skin may look fragile, but leather produced from it is strong and pliable. Photo by Kathleen Hinkel

The Art of Turning Fish into Leather

Fish skin leather was once common in fishing communities; now artisans and designers are breathing new life into the tradition.

Authored by

by Chloe Williams

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Tracy Williams slaps a plastic cutting board onto the dining room table in her home in North Vancouver, British Columbia. Her friend, Janey Chang, has already laid out the materials we will need: spoons, seashells, a stone, and snack-sized ziplock bags filled with semi-frozen fish. Williams says something in Squamish and then translates for me: “You are ready to make fish skin.”

Chang peels a folded salmon skin from one of the bags and flattens it on the table. “You can really have at her,” she says, demonstrating how to use the edge of the stone to rub away every fiber of flesh. The scales on the other side of the skin will have to go, too. On a sockeye skin, they come off easily if scraped from tail to head, she adds, “like rubbing a cat backwards.” The skin must be clean, otherwise it will rot or fail to absorb tannins that will help transform it into leather.

Williams and Chang are two of a scant but growing number of people who are rediscovering the craft of making fish skin leather, and they’ve agreed to teach me their methods. The two artists have spent the past five or six years learning about the craft and tying it back to their distinct cultural perspectives. Williams, a member of the Squamish Nation—her ancestral name is Sesemiya—is exploring the craft through her Indigenous heritage. Chang, an ancestral skills teacher at a Squamish Nation school, who has also begun teaching fish skin tanning in other BC communities, is linking the craft to her Chinese ancestry.

Tracy Williams and Janey Chang process salmon skins along the Seymour River in North Vancouver, British Columbia

Friends Tracy Williams (left) and Janey Chang process salmon skins along the Seymour River in North Vancouver, British Columbia, behind the Squamish Nation’s offices where Williams works. Photo by Kathleen Hinkel

Fish skin leather used to be commonplace in many cultures. It was like an early form of Gore-Tex. Now, it’s making a comeback. Fish skin leather is also emerging as a commodity in the world of fashion; in recent years, the material has caught the eye of designers who want to incorporate it into luxury items. Other eco-minded entrepreneurs are drawing inspiration from traditional tanning techniques to find alternate, sustainable ways of making leather. With its revival, the craft offers opportunities to reflect on old ideas that are still relevant to modern life.

Before the rise of manufactured fabrics, Indigenous peoples from coastal and riverine regions around the world tanned or dried fish skins and sewed them into clothing. The material is strong and water-resistant, and it was essential to survival. In Japan, the Ainu crafted salmon skin into boots, which they strapped to their feet with rope. Along the Amur River in northeastern China and Siberia, Hezhen and Nivkh peoples turned the material into coats and thread. In northern Canada, the Inuit made clothing, and in Alaska, several peoples including the Alutiiq, Athabascan, and Yup’ik used fish skins to fashion boots, mittens, containers, and parkas. In the winter, Yup’ik men never left home without qasperrluk—loose-fitting, hooded fish skin parkas—which could double as shelter in an emergency. The men would prop up the hood with an ice pick and pin down the edges to make a tent-like structure.

As practical and pervasive as the material was, the practice of making fish skin leather faded in the 20th century. Its loss is intertwined with colonialism and assimilation. In 1899, Japan enacted the Hokkaido Former Aborigines Protection Act, which clinched the assimilation of Ainu people into Japanese society—the Ainu lost their lifestyle of fishing, hunting, and gathering. In Alaska, Indigenous peoples were first forced into slave labor by Russian fur hunters and later subjected to US policies aimed at eradicating their traditional lifestyles. Handmade fish skin clothing gave way to rubber boots and factory-made rain gear. As fish skin leather slipped into obscurity, so did the knowledge of how to produce it.

Along the Seymour River, Williams and Chang first soak their salmon skins and then use seashells to scrape away the scales as part of their tanning process. The women say that working outside with materials found in nature enhances the feeling of connectedness that they get from making fish leather. Photo by Kathleen Hinkel

In British Columbia, the material’s history is less clear. In the late 1800s, ethnographer James Teit recorded Indigenous peoples’ use of the material in the southern interior of the province: some members of the Nlaka’pamux made shoes out of dog salmon (chum) skins and part of the St’át’imc Nation fashioned fish skin sandals, repeatedly smearing the soles with pine or fir gum mixed with sand or earth to make them thicker and harder. Farther north, the Tsilhqot’in made fish skin bags. Evidence from other cultures has largely disappeared, if it existed. Fish skin doesn’t preserve well archaeologically so its history in the province is poorly understood, says Brian Hayden, professor emeritus of archaeology at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.

Fish skin leather was not part of Williams’s upbringing, and she has yet to find evidence that her Squamish ancestors worked with fish skins, though she suspects it may just not have been documented. It’s also possible that the material’s history was overlooked or forgotten because of its reputation. Williams’s in-laws from the inland Líl̓wat Nation recall fish skin shoes, but were reluctant to talk to her about it at first. Fish skin shoes were considered the poor man’s shoes. Similarly, in Alaska, fish skin parkas have sometimes been referred to as “poor people’s raincoats,” since even unskilled hunters could usually catch fish.

Williams and Chang embraced fish skin without reservation. They first heard about the material at a gathering in Washington State focused on ancestral skills. The two have known each other for almost 20 years, connected by a shared interest in living off the land. At the Washington gathering, they took a workshop together where they learned to tan salmon skin. “I was enamored with it,” Williams says.

items made from tanned fish skin leather

Williams and Chang have crafted several functional items out of their tanned fish skin leather, including this wallet and bag that Chang made from salmon. Photo by Kathleen Hinkel

Since then, she has been learning more about the craft by piecing together scraps of information from books, scouring the internet, talking to other tanners, and experimenting with recipes at home. She and Chang have tried tanning with coffee, black tea, and even an egg and oil mixture. Chang has also experimented with alder bark and wine. While they don’t always tan together, Williams and Chang often consult each other to troubleshoot. The learning curve has involved many failures, they say. Their first attempt with coffee left the skins crispy; red wine made them swell. Williams tried tanning with urine, a technique historically used by Indigenous communities in Alaska. She paid Chang’s son one dollar for each jar he filled—but the skins disintegrated when bathed in the liquid.

Despite the flops, there have been successes. Williams appliquéd fish leather on a pair of deerskin shoes she made. Chang has made pouches with alternating panels of fish and buckskin and crafted a wallet out of bark- and oil-tanned fish leather. These are hard-earned achievements, the result of years of trial and error and hours upon hours of labor for each skin.

On a Saturday morning, I visit Aurora Skala in Saanich on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, to learn about the step after scraping and tanning: softening. Skala, an anthropologist working in language revitalization, has taken an interest in making fish skin leather in her spare time. When I arrive at her house, a salmon skin that she has tanned in an acorn infusion—a cloudy, brown liquid now resting in a jar—is stretched out on the kitchen counter, ready to be worked.

Skala dips her fingers in a jar of sunflower oil and rubs it on her hands before massaging it into the skin. The skin smells only faintly of fish; the scent reminds me of salt and smoke, though the skin has been neither salted nor smoked. “Once you start this process, you can’t stop,” she says. If the skin isn’t worked consistently, it will stiffen as it dries.

scraping tool and tanned fish skins

A close-up view of a scraping tool and a few tanned fish skins owned by artisan Aurora Skala. Photo by Shanna Baker

Softening the leather with oil takes about four hours, Skala says. She stretches the skin between clenched hands, pulling it in every direction to loosen the fibers while working in small amounts of oil at a time. She’ll also work her skins across other surfaces for extra softening; later, she’ll take this piece outside and rub it back and forth along a metal cable attached to a telephone pole. Her pace is steady, unhurried, soothing. Back in the day, people likely made fish skin leather alongside other chores related to gathering and processing food or fibers, she says. The skin will be done when it’s soft and no longer absorbs oil.

Skala’s interest in fish skin leather is as much academic as it is artistic, she says; learning about the craft has given her a deeper appreciation for the ingenuity and adaptability of past communities. She considers her work to be an informal version of experimental archaeology, a field of study that involves replicating ancestral tools and skills to better understand how they were made and used. One can learn a lot about ancestral skills by using them firsthand.

In Alaska, a similar mindset has shed light on fish skin items in museum collections. During the 19th century, museum collectors were more interested in accumulating artifacts than investigating how they were made, says Aron Crowell, Alaska director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Arctic Studies Center in Anchorage. At the time, broader society believed Indigenous cultures were dying, and museum collectors rushed to preserve what they could. As a result, fish skin objects in museums are often lacking documentation.

Aurora Skala works a piece of fish skin across a cable

Skala works a piece of fish skin across a cable outside her home in Saanich, British Columbia, to soften it. Photo by Shanna Baker

To fill in knowledge gaps and to give young artists a learning opportunity, the Arctic Studies Center hosted a five-day workshop in 2012 at which Yup’ik, Sugpiaq, and Koyukon Athabascan artists demonstrated the full process of making fish skin leather items. Museum workers gained insight on how to restore and care for fish leather. They even learned that a certain stitch is water-resistant when combined with a specific way of folding seams, but is not impermeable, as they had thought. This distinction, Crowell says, adds to a more nuanced understanding of the craft.

The exchange of information has gone both ways. Fish skin artists have also studied the museum’s collections to reverse-engineer traditional crafting techniques. The process of reconnecting museum collections to artists and communities is exciting, Crowell says. But it also highlights the loss of knowledge. “It kind of feels like we’re reinventing the wheel,” Skala says. Nonetheless, the craft’s rediscovery matters—it provides a glimpse into the past and a medium for cultural revival. It also brings opportunities for business.

At a public library in Vancouver, Tasha Nathanson points to a pair of auburn, lace-up fish skin boots in a glass case. “I wore them every single solitary day from January 1 to June 30,” she says. The boots and a handful of other fish skin items, including a beaded pouch and a coin purse, are part of an exhibit organized by the city to showcase the work of local artists.

Nathanson’s boots have a scaly texture, reminiscent of snakeskin, and a piece of leather at the heel is cut in the shape of a fish tail. A guidance counselor turned entrepreneur, she stitched them in 2018 as a proof of concept for her start-up fish skin leather and fish skin footwear company called 7 Leagues Leather. Her plan is to create a shoe that appeals to everyone, like a Converse or Blundstone. If she’s successful, she’ll be participating in a growing trend within the fashion industry.

Tasha Nathanson wearing fish leather shoes

Tasha Nathanson wears the fish skin leather shoes she made as a proof of concept for the business she’s developing called 7 Leagues Leather. Part of her vision is to create a social-enterprise tannery that provides training and work for people who face barriers to employment. Photo by Kathleen Hinkel

So far, luxury brands have used fish skin leather sparingly in high-end designs—Nike reportedly experimented with making running shoes out of perch leather, and a company in Germany that modifies cars released a BMW with a salmon skin–trimmed interior. Elisa Palomino, a fashion designer and educator based in London, England, notes that Prada, Christian Dior, Louis Vuitton, John Galliano, and Puma have also used fish skin leather to make clothes, shoes, and bags.

Commercial interest in fish skin leather is partly a result of consumers’ environmental and ethical concerns about the global leather supply chain. In recent years, snakeskin and alligator skin have come under scrutiny. In 2018, Chanel discontinued its use of reptile leathers after animal rights activists raised concerns about the inhumane treatment of reptiles raised or hunted for their skins. The modern tanning industry is also known to be notoriously hard on the environment and local communities. Most conventional leather is produced using harsh chemicals, such as chromium salts, which cause respiratory ailments and persistent skin ulcers in tannery workers. Tanneries also often dump their waste into local water systems, where it contaminates drinking water and kills aquatic life.

Making fish skin leather is a gentler process than making conventional leather, Nathanson says. It requires fewer harsh chemicals; if made with plant-based tannins, it uses no harsh chemicals at all. This, she says, holding up a sample of bark-tanned skin, “is fish skin, water, salt, and trees,” plus a little beeswax and oil.

Tasha Nathanson and a team at Grey to Green Sustainable Solutions

Nathanson works with a team at Grey to Green Sustainable Solutions in Vancouver, British Columbia, a scientific consulting firm that supports businesses as they develop products that utilize waste. The group is helping Nathanson research the use of local tree bark to tan her fish skins. Photo by Kathleen Hinkel

Several sustainability-minded initiatives and companies are now pushing to develop the emerging fish skin industry. Under FishSkin, a research project funded by the European Union, fashion designers, scientists, museum curators, and craftspeople are meeting for training and networking events to discover ways of producing fish skin leather sustainably and increasing the material’s use in the fashion industry. Similarly, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is promoting fish skin leather in its Blue Growth initiative, a program aimed at supporting sustainable and efficient uses of ocean resources. FAO cohosted a fashion show in Nairobi in 2018 that featured pieces adorned with locally crafted Nile perch leather.

Fish skin is a byproduct of the food industry that often goes to waste, says Palomino, who spent 25 years working for luxury brands, such as John Galliano and Christian Dior and is involved in the FishSkin project. Every tonne of filleted fish amounts to about 40 kilograms of skins, which are often ground into animal feed or fertilizer, tossed into landfills, or thrown back into the sea. Globally, humans consumed the fillets of just under 150 million tonnes of fish in 2015. That’s equivalent to about six million tonnes of skins.

Nathanson was first introduced to fish skin leather by an environmental art group in Vancouver and was immediately struck by the business potential the material offered. Her goals are to create a market for fish skin leather and to craft shoes out of local, sustainably sourced materials. Her company will start on a smaller scale—more boutique than mass production. She hopes to have leather ready for sale by the end of 2020 and her shoes ready in 2021.

Tasha Nathanson opens a bag of fish skins

Nathanson opens a bag of fish skins to rinse in her kitchen sink in Vancouver. She regularly experiments with fish tanning techniques in her home: “This is my lab now the way that Facebook started in a dorm room,” she says. Photo by Kathleen Hinkel

Fish skin leather is thin but remarkably strong because its fibers crisscross. After wearing her boots every day for six months, Nathanson was encouraged to find that the only problems to arise were with the stitching—the thread broke—not with the leather. Now, she is working with a shoe designer and a patternmaker to create three new prototypes.

The industry, in its infancy, also faces some challenges. The idea of wearing fish skin can be off-putting to some people. The price point may also deter consumers—fish skin leather costs up to CAN $516 per square meter, which is roughly three and a half times more than cow leather, because it is manufactured on a much smaller scale. The leading commercial tanneries supplying fish skin leather also tend to be based in countries with high labor costs, such as Atlantic Leather in Iceland and Nanai in Germany.

And although tonnes of fish skins are wasted through the food industry, accessing them can be difficult. Most fish are sold skin-on, Nathanson says. For her first pair of shoes, she used skin from a local fish-smoking operation. Obtaining high-quality plant-based tannins is another challenge for her; all the pre-made plant-based tannin powders she has found are imported, often from South America. As her business develops, she plans to use tannins derived from waste produced by a nearby cidery and from leftover bark from forestry operations.

Nathanson scrapes a halibut skin

Nathanson scrapes a halibut skin in her kitchen before tanning it. Photo by Kathleen Hinkel

So far, reactions to her idea have been positive. The forestry sector and local fisheries seem interested in making more out of what currently goes unused, Nathanson says. And when Nathanson wore her fish skin shoes around Vancouver, strangers stooped down to touch them, intrigued. The material speaks to locals. “It is of this place.”

In a time of environmental crises, using local resources to their full extent may be an idea worth reviving.

Back at Williams’s home in North Vancouver, I flick the last of the scales off the salmon skin. The television hums in the background, where two of Williams’s children, aged 15 and 8, her sister, and her niece are watching their evening programs.

The revival of fish skin leather is more than the rediscovery of a craft. Working with our hands in traditional ways is one of the few avenues we have to connect with our ancestors, Chang says. According to Williams, the process of making fish skin leather gives Indigenous peoples an opportunity to connect with their heritage in a meaningful way. But anyone can benefit from learning to make fish skin leather, she says. It enables us to restore a relationship to land and water. Any skill that teaches us to slow down and respect our surroundings is a valuable one.

When I finish scraping, Williams tells me to take the skin home to finish the tanning and softening on my own. She puts it in a plastic bag and hands it to me. I place the bag in my backpack, unsure about my aptitude as a tanner. Making fish skin leather is a process of learning from mistakes, Williams says. “You just keep trying.” There’s always an opportunity to learn more about the craft and the lessons it has to teach.

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Cite this Article: Chloe Williams “The Art of Turning Fish into Leather,” Hakai Magazine, Apr 28, 2020, accessed July 18th, 2024, https://hakaimagazine.com/features/the-art-of-turning-fish-into-leather/.

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