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Discovering EI (East India) Leathers

When I first started working with leather in Denver, USA, I was told the rare leather imported from a premium UK supplier was ‘E.I. leather’, the finest vegetable-tanned leather for hand colouring. The leather has a luminous blond colour that no other vegetable or chemically tanned leather is able to replicate.

The leather is strong and has a lively bounce. E.I. leather was considered the finest leather for luxury footwear and bags in the UK and Italy. To my surprise, further research showed that E.I. stood for ‘East India’, and the leather originated less than 100 miles from my home town of Pondicherry. The distinctive quality of E.I. leather came from the use of barks, seeds and oils native to South Indian mountains and forests — and of course, from a knowledge and craft perfected and handed down from generation to generation over centuries.

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The art consists of soaking hides for 40 days in wattle bark and myrobalan seeds, and then rubbing the tanned leathers with pungam oil, a native oil that makes the leather supple.

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My excitement that the finest leather in the world came from my native area led me, on my return to India, to search for the source of this special leather. To my great disappointment, tanner after tanner that I visited and informed me they had stopped using the E.I. process and shifted to a new, more modern process of chrome tanning. As in Europe and the United States, most tanneries had dropped E.I. leather in favour of chemically tanned leather in order to minimize costs and time, and due to a shortage of skilled craftsmen.

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The disastrous results were apparent around all the tanneries. Where tannery waste water had once nurtured surrounding fields, now these areas were poisoned deserts with a high incidence of cancer and skin disease. Farmers and tanners, tanneries and the environment, once bound together in a symbiotic and mutually beneficial relationship, were now enemies.

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Thus began my search to find the last remaining skilled tanners of E.I. leather and to dedicate Hidesign to research more innovative methods of tanning, based firmly on a heritage that had once created the greatest leather in the world. It’s been an adventurous journey of collaborative innovation with the keepers of one of the world’s greatest traditions. This quest has established, Hidesign as a leader in the newly fashionable area of ‘ecological tanning’ — a value that we have upheld over the past 35 years, ever since I first returned to India.

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