Russian leather brings with it an imaginary world where fantasy mixes with reality.
According to the legend, Yufte – as it is called in Russia – owes its origins to a Cossack warrior who, riding across the immense Russian steppes, came up with the idea of rubbing his boots against the bark of birch trees to make them waterproof. Although it is impossible to precisely place the appearance of this leather in space and time, the very first mentions date back to the 16th century with origins in Central Asia.
The grain hates two crossed wefts, forming small, irregular and elongated diamonds. Due to its very specific browning, the colour is deep and nuanced, from a fairly deep red-brown. It feels round and smooth to the touch. But it is the very speciela smell that has given Russian leather its great fame. But this leather also has 2 other surprising properties : it repels insects and is particularly resistant to moisture and water. This made this leather particularly interesting for bookbinding and wrapping, as well as for the manufacture of soldiers’ boots and all kinds of precious objects such as chests or even sophisticated decorative elements.
See further below for the rest of this story.
Book references :
– Shipwreck by Ian Skelton – Amazon.com
– The wreck of the Metta Catharina – Amazon.com
On 10 December 1786, a strong south-westerly storm forced the Danish sailing ship 'Metta Catharina' to seek shelter in Plymouth Sound (UK). This while the ship was en route from the Russian port of St Petersburg towards the Mediterranean, more specifically Genoa, with a cargo of hemp and leather. During the day however, the wind picked up sharply and turned from southwest to south, turning the hitherto safe anchorage into a maelstrom of waves and drifting water. By 10pm that same evening, a full gale chased across Plymouth Sound. The 53-tonne "Metta Catharina" broke loose from her anchor, got stuck on Drakes Island and was blown across towards Mount Edgecumbe by the fierce gale before sinking on the south coast of Cornwall. The crew luckily managed to get ashore, but the ship and its cargo were completely lost.
Until nearly 200 years later... Because in 1973, divers from the Plymouth Sound branch of the British Sub-Aqua club found an unusual ship's bell on the seabed, 20 metres below the surface of Plymouth Sound. The bell was lifted and cleaned. This allowed the adjacent wreck to be identified as the "Metta Catherina von Flensburg" dated 1782.
Further investigation revealed that the wreck still contained many bundles of skins, which were now lying on the seabed. These had been remarkably well preserved after two centuries of immersion in black mud.
Since the first skins were found, many hundreds more were subsequently brought to the surface. Their size and shape suggest that they came from different reindeer.
The skins were tanned in traditional Russian way, that is, they were soaked in pits with willow bark and rubbed with birch oil. Most of the hides also have a cross-grain texture embossed by hand. The same grain structure can be seen on upholstery and bookbindings of that time, which once made this 'Russian' leather very famous for its water-repellent and insect-resistant properties.
That this leather was able to survive so long in the water is due to the thoroughness and excellence of the work of the tanners and tanneries in St Petersburg as well as the oxygen-free black mud on the seabed at Plymouth Sound.