The Leather Conservation Centre is very fortunate to have access to some very rare samples of leather and as such we thought we would take some time and dive into the story of a very special example…
Die Frau Metta Catharina von Flensburg better known as the Metta Catharina was a brigantine ship built in 1782 in Scandinavia. In 1786, the ship set sail for Genoa from Saint Petersburg loaded with cargo of hemp and of most relevance here, many hides of ‘Russia leather’ (approximately 106 tonnes!). As the ship drew closer to the British coast, weather began to worsen, and the crew sought refuge south of Plymouth. It’s here that the ship met her unfortunate demise when a gale of immense strength tore the ship from its anchor. The crew of six were very lucky and survived, although the cargo was lost and remained under the sea for almost 200 years.
In 1973, divers from the Plymouth Sub Aqua Club Archaeological Society discovered and excavated a bronze bell from the ship which made it possible to ascertain its name, type, and construction date. Even more importantly, this find led them to the real treasure- the leather! (Not that we’re biased…).
Rolls of leather were found grouped together and through their deposition within layers of sediment and the sacrificial protection of the outer leather rolls, the inner rolls survived with exceptional preservation to such a miraculous extent that when excavated the leather met the archaeologists with its characteristic scent of birch oil. Leather which has been deposited underwater or within waterlogged conditions usually require immediate conservation attention once excavated and despite these efforts usually do not retain their previous qualities, such as flexibility. If you weren’t aware the origins of this leather you could easily mistake it for modern leather. Ownership was bestowed upon Prince Charles as the leather was found in the Duchy of Cornwall, and his decision was to allow the leather to be sold to pay for future investigation. People have gone on to use this leather to create goods such as upholstered furniture, watch straps, bags, etc. Speaking to its remarkable degree of preservation.
The LCC holds some of this leather and this access allows a fantastic insight into the story, but also into historic leather manufacturing techniques and allows us to consider historic terms such as ‘Russia leather’ today.
What is Russia Leather?
The leather finds its origins (unsurprisingly) from Russia. Sources show that this leather was well known among Europeans for the qualities briefly mentioned above but most importantly its longevity, smell, and distinctive hatched surface. In fact, up to a million tonnes were exported from St. Petersburg during the 17th and 18th centuries! Contemporary sources describe the process of ‘Russia leather’ manufacture where the hides are tanned using barks of birch and willow and the skins curried using birch oil and seal fat, further treatment is undertaken by impressing the grain using patterned boards/rollers. The hatched surface was at one-point pure coincidence, likely the result of the twigs placed in the tanning pits incidentally creating the now iconic surface. Leather matching this description was regularly imported from Russia however, during the Revolution, production ceased and eventually, details of the exact process were forgotten.
There are conflicting arguments regarding how we define ‘Russia leather’. It seems that the apparent point of contention is the skin used with several conflicting sources describing the use of calf, adult cow, horse, and reindeer as being the exclusive skin from which ‘Russia leather’ is produced. The leather from the Metta Catharina was identified by the British Leather Manufacturers’ Research Association as reindeer (Tsygankova 2012). The discovery of this leather with its distinctive qualities (impression decoration, use of birch oil, etc.) shared by other examples of ‘Russia leather’ had supported the claim that ‘Russia leather’ is produced from deer skin. However, more recent analytical research has shown that bovine skins were amongst those discovered on the Metta Catharina (Tsygankova 2012, Troalen et al 2021).
The matter is complicated further when we begin to consider ‘yufte’, a leather widely referenced in contemporary Russian language sources which holds the same characteristics as those described for ‘Russia leather’, with many equating the two (Tsygankova 2012). ‘Yufte’ is recorded as having a similar manufacturing process, however, is only produced from the skins of cow, horse, and calf- deer is not mentioned in contemporary Russian language sources (Tsygankova 2012). Sources also attest that it was one of Russia’s biggest exports. Interestingly, it seems that while the ‘Russia leather’ exported from Russia was used to adorn precious and status items in Europe, ‘yufte’ was largely used for more utilitarian items in Russia, such as soldiers boots and so on (Tsygankova 2012). Further to this, the smell of ‘yufte’ was tolerated rather than desired among the Russians, more associated with regular items (Tsygankova 2012).
The category of ‘Russia leather’ is still used today in modern leather production where a desire to replicate leather like that found on the Metta Catharina and led to interesting projects investigating the concept of ‘Russia leather’. In this instance, of greatest concern was the distinctive perfume of the leather as a feature in itself, rather than a by-product of its resistance to pest damage.
The leather found on the Metta Catharina for a long time was taken to be the quintessential example of ‘Russia leather’, frozen in time. Archaeological evidence tends to give us a snapshot into the past, allowing a fascinating insight but not truly revealing the entire picture. With new investigations and research, it’s clear that the category of ‘Russia leather’ is not as simple and exacting as once thought…
If you would like to read more about this topic, please check out some of the references below!
Troalen, L et al. 2021. Method development for the identification of Russia leather- A comparative study of waterlogged leather samples. In ICOM-CC 19th Triennial Conference 2021 Beijing.
Tsygankova, V. 2012 Russian Yufte as ‘Russia Leather’ in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth- Century Western Bookbinding. Available at https://www.ligatus.org.uk/sites/default/files/VT-ligatus-yufte.pdf