“As surely as modern [people]’s machines pollute the environment, so does [their] costume pollute the aesthetics of the world. This is a crisis as serious as the upsetting of our physical ecology, for only the continued existence of the aesthetic realm will make life worth living. In this realm, one person’s or one culture’s idea of beauty is not commensurate with the whole of [human]kind. Yet nature has given [people] a universal aesthetic principal of which all sensitive men and women are aware – namely, that living in harmony with the landscape is the natural requirement of the whole [person]. This principal means that the natural world is beautiful and that to live in harmony with it [people] must be beautiful, too. Beauty involves such qualities as variety, harmony, and individual dignity. It requires beauty of mind and body – the perpetual search of thinking people. For living [people], this is expressed not only in action but appearance. The great hope of the earth is that the proponents of Western culture can be made to consider not only the vulnerability of the physical earth but the mortality of [human] cultures. The reality of this mortality is made graphic in [human] costume.”
-Walter A. Fairservice, Jr., “Costumes of the East”, 1971
There was a time when what you wore signaled to the world where you came from, who your people were and who you were among them. The colors, the materials, the weave, the tanning, the embroidery and elaboration all were part of an intricate and complex code of meaning and belonging. Certain Eastern European embroidery motifs are direct descendants of paleolithic carvings and drawings. Designs on Central Asian felts can be maps of ancestry, kinship and migration. Great significance was placed on certain color combinations and pattern placement, often only showing up on garments particular to certain stages of life. When clothing was handmade in this fashion, every color was not only beautiful in its own right but could be read as certain plant combinations that went into the dye, where the flax was grown could be read in the nap of the weave, the leather tells the age of the animal and when in the year they were killed and by how skilled a hunter. For peoples the world over, there was a time when clothing meant all this and more.
Clothing is a visual language made of the natural world, who’s fullest expression is the achievement of meaningful beauty attuned and adapted to place and time. As with all languages, its meaning is inherited – not intended-and herein lies the conundrum of modern clothing. Aesthetic value cannot, try as we might, be divorced from the modes of production, the people and the places that made them. Clothing tells stories, true ones, and in these times too often troubling ones.
Smoke-tanned leather clothing, being as old as humans are to the cold, has behind it a long and rich history that barely survives to this day. Since the 1970s, in great debt to those indigenous tanners who kept it alive until then, North America has seen a small but palpable resurgence of “brain-tanning” – of making leathers in these old ways. Somewhere in there is the recognition that smoke-tanned clothing is beautiful-in all the manners of preparation, the alchemy, the regard for the animal, and how all this can blossom into a garment so deeply serviceable. This type of vast and intricate beauty, made of a truly human approach to living inside the natural world, underlies the best of motivations in the movements towards healthy, real food and all manners of environmental protection. As real things become scarce these days, the longing for them seems to grow.
As a soft, breathable, and extremely strong material, many of the wearing qualities of smoke-tanned clothing cannot be found elsewhere. Smoke-tanned mitts and mukluks (winter moccasins, for short) still cannot be beat in the real cold due to the combination of insulation, wind protection and breathe-ability. No other material is strong, thin and supple enough to provide both clothing and durable footwear in the same relative thicknesses. Smoke-tanned clothing was worn for tens of thousands of years, and still is, for good reason. Strangely and mercifully, this way of making leather remains staunchly adverse to industrial production and processes – to this day smoke tanned leather can only be made one at a time, slowly, and may that continue.
All of the clothing I make is of my own tanned hides, hand-cut and hand-stitched to measure. Mostly, this is work and learning and dedication, where everything you profess to hold dear either shows up, or doesn’t, for all to see. In amongst all these various labors, the one most fraught – at the same time the least visible and most tenuous – is the cutting. This is the make or break, the rubber hitting the road, and truly the joy and sorrow of the soulful leather craftsman. After the blood, sweat and tears of all the tanning, the thought of putting scissors to this immaculate landscape of a skin is almost unbearable-every time. Into the fire, through the threshold, down to the underworld, across the river and out to sea-it often seems the fresh cut pattern pieces could never be more beautiful, more perfect-and now you’re in, there is nothing else until that garment is complete.