Leather Alchemists

Atlantic Leathers transfigures smelly old fish skins into items of luxury
Words by Stephanie Orford
“To see something so unattractive as a raw fish skin turn into nice leather—it’s a beautiful process,” Gunnsteinn Björnsson said as he led me through his factory. Gunnsteinn is the general manager and part owner of Atlantic Leathers, the fish leather maker behind many of Iceland’s fashion designers.

The company’s warehouse in Sauðárkrókur, Northern Iceland, is where the magic happens. This is where an initially unappealing by-product of Iceland’s fishing industry is scraped, scrubbed, and massaged into luxurious exotic leather.

The building is cavernous—a 4.000 square metre warehouse—and it smells like chemicals plus a hint of gaminess. The tannery makes leather from salmon, wolffish, cod, and perch, catering to companies locally and worldwide. Gunnsteinn estimates that half of Reykjavík designers buy from his factory, including Steinunn clothing and Gastu jewellery designs. “We have a lot of very small customers,” Gunnsteinn said.

Making the sea change

Though Icelanders have been using fish skin for centuries, Atlantic Leathers only recently went through the transition from making lamb leather to making fish leather. But now, fish leather comprises about 70 percent of Atlantic Leathers’ revenue from what they tan.

Luckily for them, fish skin is easy to come by. The tannery’s previous owners went out of business partly because the decreasing sheep population in Iceland forced them to reduce their leather production. Gunnsteinn was a worker in the factory at the time. When the old company went under, he and Sigriður Káradóttir, Atlantic Leathers’ export manager and Gunnsteinn’s wife, decided to buy in.

Today Atlantic Leathers still does business in sheep leather, as evidenced by the multitudes of soft skins piled on palates on the factory floor, but now the company is also tapping a cheap, plentiful, and formerly wasted resource. Up to 200.000 fish skins come through the factory per year, all from Iceland.

Fish: the super skin

Making fish leather wasn’t so easy at first, said Gunnsteinn. Fish skin has been used in Iceland for centuries, but only by those who couldn’t afford lamb leather. The untanned skin was considered poorer quality because it was brittle and disintegrated easily. People would measure the distance over a mountain, Gunnsteinn joked, by counting how many pairs of fish skin shoes you would wear out walking over it. But modern methods have turned the tables.

Modern tanning techniques take advantage of fish skin’s unique microscopic cross-hatched pattern. “When it’s tanned,” Gunnsteinn says, “it’s stronger than most skin you can get.” Ten times stronger than lamb leather of the same thickness, to be precise.

When they started tanning fish skins, Atlantic Leathers had to develop low temperature tanning techniques, because their fish were native to the cold North Atlantic, therefore were adapted to temperatures below 20 degrees C. If you heat fish skin above 30 degrees, the temperature lamb skin is normally tanned at, the collagen protein that makes up the fish skin dissolves. Too bad Gunnsteinn found that out the hard way, he told me with a laugh. He accidentally stewed “thousands of litres of fish soup,” on his first try at fish tanning.

Making shiny happy fish skin

Raw fish skin is hardly something you’d want to wear. It takes many steps to turn it into a high-end fashion product. Gunnsteinn receives the frozen fish skins from fishing plants, and defrosts them as leather orders come in. When they’re defrosted, Gunnsteinn explained, “We scrape off the rest of the flesh inside the skin, so it will be open for the tanning agent to penetrate into it.” He showed me the sinister but essential scraping machine.

After they’re scraped, the skins are washed, the scales removed in large turning drums, and the natural fats are cleaned out. When the skins have been treated with salts and acids, to stabilize their pH, they’re ready for tanning. Gunnsteinn adds tanning agents to the skins to fill in the collagen, to make the skins soft, and to help with the dying process later.

He takes me to an alcove full of vats of fully tanned, undyed salmon skins kept in water. They are stored here until someone orders a particular colour—all finished skins are made-to-order. Gunnsteinn takes out a skin and stretches it so I can see the texture, the geometrical pockets left behind when the fish scales are removed. This pattern becomes the unique fish leather texture customers covet.

The alchemist’s inner sanctum

Gunnsteinn guided me through the factory to a small, machine-crowded room he called the laboratory, “the most important place in the tannery.” The laboratory is where new tanning methods are born. A breathing mask hung beside the sink, and from the room’s odour, I could see why—the place was a chemical playground. One wall was lined with mysterious blue plastic bottles. He said that most contained dyes and a few were filled with vegetable-based oils to replace the natural fats in the leather, an essential step to soften the skins. Gunnsteinn needed to develop a special process for replacing the fats in fish skin. It needs different fats than sheep skin does.

The laboratory is also where Gunnsteinn works when he’s making dyes to match the colour swatches companies send him. Several high-end fashion companies buy from Atlantic Leathers, including Dior, Prada, Ferragamo, Fendi, and Donna Karan. “Normally they want their own colour,” Gunnsteinn said, adding that there is no other tannery the high end fashion brands use for fish leather. “We have a special product.”

I sense that the laboratory is where Gunnsteinn takes most pride in his work, engineering the colours and textures that make the skin of a fish into a thing of beauty. Developing colours is “lots of fun,” he told me. “There is nothing to stop you from making colours in fish leathers, except imagination.” The factory can even put special finishing touches on the leathers, making them shiny or metallic. “We can do all kinds of crazy stuff,” he told me proudly.

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