In 1973, divers off England's Plymouth Sound found the wreck of the Catharina von Flensburg, an eighteenth century brigantine that sank in 1786 with a cargo of reindeer hides. They had been cured in baths of rye or oat flour and yeast, hand embossed before being soaked in wood liquor and finally hand curried and soaked in seal oil and birch tan oil. The result is a unique finish that cannot be replicated.
Though covered with mud for centuries, the hides proved to be water resistant and still very serviceable. Bundles have been periodically brought to the surface and sold by the divers who discovered them. They are dried, cleaned and sorted in a small workshop in Cornwall where some are made into attaché cases, belts and other leathergoods on the spot. Others are sent to London to be made into shoes in London by bespoke shoemakers G. J. Cleverley .
There is some question as to how long the supplies of hide will be available. I have heard it estimated that half of them still lie in the mud of the seabed, but the diver who was given rights to them has retired and there is no successor in sight. For now, Cleverley continues to deliver a small supply of products from two hundred year old Russian leather.
Photos: G. J. Cleverley