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Condition Reporting

Leather & Skin

Torn kayak.
Museum items that have skin held firmly to another material (usually wood) often suffer tears as one material moves when the skin cannot. Kayak skins frequently suffer tears as the skin ages and dries out and the wood frame shrinks and swells with changes in humidity.

Photo credit: Alaska State Museum collection II-A-3718

Flat drum.
Skin drums are another example of wood moving with changes in humidity but the skin unable to adjust. Torn drum skins are a common condition issue.

Photo credit: Alaska State Museum collection II-B-1130

Torn drum head.
Here is another example of a tear in a drum skin

Photo credit: Alaska State Museum collection II-B-1140

Distorted drum.
In this case, the skin has won the battle and distorted the drum as it shrank.

Photo credit: Alaska State Museum collection II-B-1139

Dried fish skin.
Fish skin items are common in Alaskan collections, and tend to be stiff and sometimes brittle. Tears are common, and they their rough texture tends to trap dirt and dust.

Photo credit: Alaska State Museum collection 2007-9-3

Fish skin boots.
These fish skin boots had decorative wool elements in the side seam that have been largely devoured by insects. Although the fish skin is also protein, it seems to be attacked by insects less frequently. These boots are flattened, distorted, worn, and soiled.

Photo credit: Sheldon Jackson Museum collection SJ-II-S-194

2 Silversides lures. Fish skin shaped into fish shape.
Here’s an unusual item: a fish lure made of fish skins. The ones I have seen in museum collections are in their original jar of fluid from the 1970s under the brand “Silversides”. Corrosion of the metal in the fluid seems to be the main issue with their preservation.

Photo credit: Alaska State Museum collection

Ledger book.
Here is an example of staining and mold when a slice of onion was long ago squished against the cloth and leather binding of a ledger book.

Photo credit: Alaska State Archives collection

Close-up of small holes in a suade leather dress.
This supple suede leather of a dress was severely grazed by insects. In this case, the ribbed brown debris on the surface points at the culprit: it was the egg sac of a kind of cockroach. We don’t tend to have that flying variety of cockroach in Alaska, but the dress had long been kept in a tropical climate.

Photo credit: Alaska State Museum collection 2009-10-1

Close-up of openings in the material of a doll's legs.
The legs of this doll show telltale insect infestation signs: here is webbing and dark specks of frass (insect droppings). They are likely seen along this seam because the interior stuffing might well be wool, also quite tasty to protein-eating insects.

Photo credit: Alaska State Museum collection 2009-4-5

Armor made from hide.
This hide armor was treated with a leather dressing many decades ago to make it supple. Now that leather dressing is crystallizing out on the surface as “fatty bloom” or “spew.” It looks alarmingly similar to mold, but the deposits are quite waxy. It can be removed without much trouble, but it always comes back and there is no gentle way to fully remove it from the leather. This is part of the reason most museums avoid leather dressings.

Photo credit: Sheldon Jackson Museum collection SJ-I-A-449

Close-up of spew on hide armor.
Here is a close-up of the spotty snowflake-like deposits of fatty spew.

Photo credit: Sheldon Jackson Museum collection SJ-I-A-449

Custom leather bag ("First Official Flight, Alaska") with signs of mold or spew.
This leather bag has fatty spew, and some mottled regions of staining on the surface that are also typical of leather dressings.

Photo credit: Alaska State Museum collection III-O-513

Leather bag with signs of fading.
This bag has some other condition issues, including two rectangular areas below the word “air” where the surface is skinned. This is most likely where adhesive tape or labels had been located and then pulled off, taking the surface with it. There are other localized areas of stain and accretion, but it might take a moment to notice that there is likely ink or dye fading. It seems probable that the upper halves of the block lettering were a more vivid color to help the design pop. Loss of that color makes the letters a little less legible.

Photo credit: Alaska State Museum collection III-O-513

Close-up of spew on a model kayak.
Here is an example of fatty spew on a kayak model. This was likely done as well-intentioned maintenance to insure the leather did not crack or split.

Photo credit: Alaska State Museum collection III-O-908

Torn leather strap.
The leather strap of these boots is torn. Leather straps, ties, thongs, and lashings are commonly torn or broken and should be inspected during a condition report. Likewise, it is nice to indicate if these elements are flexible, stiff, or brittle. Sometimes they are kinked, and those kinked spots are vulnerable to breakage in the future and should be noted.

Photo credit: Alaska State Museum collection II-A-3049

Chest.
These chests are commonly called “Russian Chests” or “Chinese Chests” and were a trade item. They are usually made of camphorwood and have painted skin surfaces (probably pigskin) that is nailed in place with decorative tacks. There are also trim pieces of sheet copper or copper alloy. Like kayaks and drums, this is an example of leather prevented from movement when the wood it is affixed to is able to shrink and swell with changes in humidity. Almost all of these chests suffer tears in the leather to some degree.

Photo credit: Alaska State Museum collection II-B-1367

Close-up of tears in a Chinese chest.
Here is a detail showing the torn leather on one of these chests. The paint in this case is also cracked. This may be because of movement in the leather from humidity fluctuations that the paint layer could not tolerate. Another possibility is that the painted leather may have been coated. There are hazy deposits around the tacks, which might simply be soiling but if it is a coating that might be what is cracking.

Photo credit: Alaska State Museum collection II-B-1584

Close-up of tear in leather of chest near the copper trim.
Here is another detail of typical damage on one of these chests. There is a tear in the leather, which has a wide gap and some distortion, and there has been loss of many of the copper alloy tacks. The sheet copper alloy trim is still present, but is missing a few of the tiny nails that hold it in place. Be sure to search the area and inside the chest in case some of those tiny nails or tacks might be found.

Photo credit: Alaska State Museum collection II-B-1367

Large travel chest/luggage.
Leather luggage is also common in museum collections. Look for wear, abrasion, damage, and loss to the corner bumpers, damaged handles or straps, and losses to trim pieces. Straps and handles are very typically weak and deteriorated. Indicate whether straps are flexible or stiff. There is often desire to buckle leather buckles for display, but this is often not possible without damaging the leather.

Photo credit: Alaska State Museum collection 2013-10-8

Close-up of wear & tear along edging of travel luggage.
Trim on this chest is quite worn and damaged with moderate areas of loss. The greenish areas indicate where copper hardware is becoming corroded.

Photo credit: Alaska State Museum collection 2013-10-8

Close-up of tanned pelt.
Sometimes tanned pelts are marked with a tanner’s stamp, often a pattern of holes like this.

Photo credit: Alaska State Museum collection

Close-up of follicle pattern on leather.
Here is an up-close image of a follicle pattern, where the hairs enter the surface of the skin. If you see this pattern, you have the original outer skin present, known as the grain of the leather. Different kinds of animals have different telltale follicle patterns. This pattern of somewhat parallel rows of holes is typical of seals.

Photo credit: Alaska State Museum collection

Leather straps.
Here are the leather straps on an old pack. The grain surface is cracked, but there are not large deep cracks or splits in the leather. It is helpful to indicate whether these straps are flexible, stiff, or brittle.

Photo credit: Alaska State Museum collection III-O-508

Close-up of leather straps on binoculars.
The leather on the handle of this binocular case appears to suffer from “red rot”. This is common on old leather-bound books as well. Red rot happens on vegetable tanned leather, often in the presence of sulfur and high humidity. Sulfur might be from impurities in its original production, or from air pollution.  Leather with red rot is weak, sometimes powdery, and is often delaminating.

Photo credit: Alaska State Museum collection III-O-2

Wallet made of salmon skin.
Leathers can also be really tough. One museum patron slapped this leather and fish skin wallet on the counter and declared he had been carrying it in his pocket for more than 20 years.

Photo credit: Ellen Carrlee