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Europe’s Only Fish Tannery/Leather from the Sea
Europe’s Only Fish Tannery
Five Years from Fish Soup to Soft Leather
June 10th marked the official opening of Sútarinn, the last remaining Icelandic tannery and now economuseum. The museum guides guests through the tanning process from stripping the fat off translucent fish skins to adding finishing details to dried skins. The idea to start a museum came when visitors to the town of Sauðarkrókur got wind that Europe’s only fish leather tannery was operating nearby. Last year, Sútarinn received between four and five thousand visitors. It was then that they had to decide whether to open their doors completely or firmly shut the tannery to guests.

A Crazy Invention
Aided by IMPRA, a branch of the Icelandic Innovation Centre committed to aiding companies starting new projects and work developed by entrepreneurs and inventors, Sútarinn has grown from an experiment in the inventive search for new materials into a rapidly developing for-profit museum. While other tanneries struggled to compete with each other, Sútarinn opted for a new approach and began working with fish skins in 1989.
“People thought that we were crazy in those early years,” grins Gunnsteinn, owner of both companies working at Sútarinn: Atlantic Leather and Loðskinn. “All we had at first was thousands of litres of fish soup.” Five years later, they had developed a process and created Atlantic Leather. By 2000, their fish leather had the same softness as leather from cows and no residual smell; the process was perfected and Sútarinn remained the only tannery left in Iceland.

A Rare View of Tanning
Sútarinn’s determination has made it what it is today and is part of the reason for the economuseum, which gives visitors a rare view of tanning from start to finish. Sútarinn combines their tannery tour with a historical overview of tanning in Iceland. Sútarinn has tools used in tanning, early photographs, and clothes produced from old tanneries that were donated by Glaumbaer, which collaborates in projects to preserve Skagafjörður’s history.
Sútarinn uses fish skin, which would otherwise be thrown away. Most of its fish skins come from a factory in Dalvik, a town an hour away. The majority of skins are exported, but some Icelandic designers have decided to work with the new material. A shop in Sútarinn features products from Icelandic designers and fish skins themselves for purchase. Traditional double face sheepskins, calf skins, and ostrich skins are also processed at the tannery.

Leather from the Sea
Fabulous Fish Creations from Sútarinn’s Tannery
Spotted leopard print leather in turquoise and chartreuse leaps from glossy magazine pages. But these daring spots come from wolf fish tanned at Sútarinn, Iceland’s only tannery. Shocking as it may seem, fish is the latest trend in leather and has begun to climb its way from the bottom of the sea to the top fashion world.
Though the idea for using fish leather is not novel, the process has been refined. Fish leather shoes were worn in Iceland hundreds of years ago, but their quality was questionable. A popular joke was to ask how many fish leather shoes it took to get from one place to another. This dilemma was solved by the inventive Atlantic Leather company, which takes fish skin byproducts from Dalvík, in North Iceland and turns them into skins that can be made into shoes, bags, clothes and furniture.

From Waste to Haute Couture

Couture clothing designers like Alexander Wang, Sigerson & Morrison and Helmut Lang have all bought skins from Atlantic Leather. Fish leather trumps more mundane cow or sheep leather with its variety of patterns, which vary according to the species of fish. Wolf fish sports spots, perch has rough and raw scales, while salmon leather is thin and moulds to fit any contour. Though skins are dyed and treated to enhance their pattern, they are simply a soft and scentless version of nature’s original design. All chemicals used in the tanning and dyeing process are EU approved.

Out of Weakness, Made Strong
The questions in everyone’s minds revolve around the quality and durability of fish leather. Fish leather is surprisingly strong, even stronger than other kinds of leather because it has cross-hatched fibres rather than fibres that run in only one direction. Despite the normally pungent smell of fish, the treatment eliminates any smell so that few people can even recognise the difference between fish and other types of leather. Better yet, fish leather is a byproduct of food processing so it creates value from something otherwise thrown away.
Still a skeptic? Then come take a look at Sútarinn, Atlantic Leather’s economuseum in Sauðarkrókur. Guests can take a tour to see the process firsthand and walk away with some of the latest fish leather fashions.

See video here

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