Objects of Beauty and Pragmatism Interview
with Katherine Batliner

Where does your interest in leather and beautiful things come from?

There always was a great interest crafted objects. I come from a family of craftsmen. Everyone was eagerly engaged in creating things from woodwork, pottery, painting ceramics or textile works. My grandmother spent a significant part of her time with tiny wood works and carving, those little figurines that are typical for the Alps where I grew up and I helped her, or so I thought (laughs). I am not so much of a traditionalist; a purely decorative aspect is not that important to me. If anything everyday objects should be equally beautiful and pragmatic.

As the designer of BATLINER you decided early on not to create new collections every season. Why in particular?

Apart from the fact that I believe in owning less things but of great quality, I see our leather goods independent of trends. Objects of everyday use, that proof themselves worthy in quality and design, enrich our daily lives. One could say that what I do might be more design than fashion.
Bearing in mind the complexity of such a time intense production based mainly on manual work-steps the development takes time, more than a year in some cases. For example, the varying sizes of the fish skins often makes it necessary to adapt the design to the material. It would not even be possible to make entirely new collections each season. Additionally technical development and refinement is more important to me than different seasonal collections. Therefore we adapt colours and alter and add designs to have a growing process rather than renewal.

Seeing it from the artisans' perspective, their work needs to be valued, otherwise they lose their passion. Who wouldn't, knowing that many things are constantly replaced and what had been created in several days by their hands just remained a fling in the end. That may be one more reason why it could get more difficult to educate a new generation of passionate and qualified artisans in Europe.

Iceland; Sulphur field with hot mud rupturing from the volcanic earth.

"The company that produces our fish leather is 100% ecologically self-sufficient. Certainly this is an exception as Iceland has numerous volcanoes with geothermal activity, but it also raises general awareness for ecological issues."

There is a lot of talk about vegetable-tanned leather, is it really better?

First of all, only beige and light brown colours can be reached with real vegetable tanning and dying. If you have a really good skin and like natural colours and patina it is wonderful. The smell is fantastic as well.

Our colourful leathers are necessarily chrome-tanned. In recent years the belief has widely been spread that vegetable-tanning is natural and therefore great whilst chrome-tanning is dangerous. But: wrong tanning is only harmful when wastewater that has not been cleaned re-enters the process and causes chemical reactions with hazardous consequences. This happens when regulations are neglected, mostly to save a little money. But the tanneries that work with us clean the water completely as they follow strict laws and regulations, also in their own interest, and in that case chrome-tanning and aluminium-tanning require far less water than vegetable-tanning. The chemicals can be reused dozens of times and are in the end depolluted without harm. So like with many things, the truth lies somewhere in between.

So leather is no problem for the environment at all?

I would say that humanity in general is a problem for the environment (laughs). Correctly produced materials under European laws are not problematic as long as they are used according to their immaterial value, meaning using it until it falls apart. Personally, I believe that low prices heavily contribute to the issue of the disposable fashion phenomenon. There is great pressure on everyone from producers and farmers to tanners and workshops.

Still we have to admit that we just use goods and often we can't build a relationship to it as quality constantly disappoints us. Hence we are not used to longevity anymore. Quality is comfort, it saves time, creates appreciation. And luckily the desire for it is currently about to change the business, fashion is currently about to and design already has partly transformed from fast trends towards quality pieces with a meaning.

"We only use natural looking leathers with untreated surfaces, the material can breathe and get better with time. It does not take an expert to understand leather, it always has a smell and if that is good the quality is great too."

Mihitar, Katherine Batliner's mentor and teacher

Does leather craftsmanship have a future in Europe?

I am convinced that more young people would be interested in learning the craft if they felt their work would be valued, in a way that would translate into a decent salary. The young Italians know for example that what they are likely to earn in the leather goods sector will bear little relation to the time they will have to dedicate to their work. There's little incentive, particularly when the work is also so physically demanding. One must not forget being an artisan also demands a certain intellect.

Yet at the same time, the high demands of the fashion industry heavily effect small companies. It is nearly impossible for a workshop with ten employees to produce 12 fashion lines every year. The pressure is high, with companies collapsing, partly because we, the customers, have no relations to the price of handmade things anymore.
Recently the situation has begun to change though as one can see everywhere already.

"I am not so much of a traditionalist; a purely decorative aspect is not that important to me. If anything, everyday objects should be equally beautiful and pragmatic."

Do you think that leather goods are still objects of prestige?

Real leather - the kind that comes from pure tanned animal skins - is still a beautiful and precious material. Unfortunately, the term leather has come to be applied across the board and to include materials that are mass-produced and disposable. About two thirds of what is now called leather is in actual fact pressed leather shreds attached to plastic carrier fabric.
For the most part, the leather industry is an environmental disaster. It is devastating to see what workers in low labour-cost countries have to endure for the sake of the fashion industry. If leather jackets from certain factories in Pakistan could talk the business would be very different. It's not just about poor salaries: many people are dying at their work, as health and safety regulations are abandoned in order to keep prices low.

However, in developed regions tanning is safe due to modern filter systems that completely clean the water, as long as applied it is correctly. The company that produces our fish leather is 100% ecologically sound. Certainly this is an exception as Iceland has numerous volcanoes with geothermal activity, but it also raises general awareness for ecological issues.

What characterises a real leather skin?

A calf skin for example has a thickness of approximately 2.4 mm and is supposed to be split in three parts. We almost exclusively work with the top layer called Full Grain. Only a small percentage of all top layers can be dyed with solvent colours that are fully absorbed by the leather and not just applied to the surface.
"Dyed-through" skins are scratch resistant and remain beautiful for decades, the higher humidity makes them softer and gives them a more vibrant colour.
We only use natural looking leathers with untreated surfaces so the material can breathe and get better with time. It does not take an expert to understand leather, it always has a smell and if that is good the quality is great too.

First bag

Why is it important that your leather goods are made in small family businesses?

Being in contact with everyone that works on your designs makes manufacturing easier but also more enjoyable for both sides. And of course it is easier to verify that the working conditions are fair for everyone.
We often create the prototypes together, the artisans have an enormous experience and thousands of bags and different ideas have gone through their hands, they usually know if it works before the designers can. In large scale production this would be difficult to realise.

What else is important to you regarding materials?

Initially, it is always the material itself, but as soon as I know where something comes from and how it was made, it develops an identity. These things have a specific charm. Linen for example has these thicker threads that retain the character of the typical, sometimes sturdy plant structure of flax, the thicker threads are not mistakes - but signs that the material lives. The linens are produced according to methods, which have remained very similar to those from the 19th century, the processes were only slightly modernised.

How did you discover fish leathers?

I had read about fish leather and had a first look at it in Paris. Everything about it was fantastic, including its producers. We all loved the idea to make something useful of an as yet unused by-product of the fish industry. My favourite material for the moment, cod leather, is a by-product of fish sticks production in Norway. When seeing fish leathers for the first time most people don't believe that it is really made of fish. Almost anyone holds it to the nose to see whether it smells like fish. It is unique, especially the touch of it. For me it is a miracle material, which can only be fully understood when seeing and touching it by oneself.

And does it smell like fish?

(laughs) Luckily it does not smell anymore. The original, several thousand years old historic finds and other old techniques to make fish leather had not been able to remove the smell as it was more drying that really tanning. But since 15 years our partner company has been able to create real soft leather.

Did you always plan to found an accessories label?

It all happened through an encounter by chance with the 85-year-old Armenian craftsman Mihitar, that still worked almost around the clock. He was the master craftsman out of the book from whom I have learned a lot. You have to consider that he had 70 years of experience first as a shoemaker and later as a designer for shoes and leather goods. For several years I visited him and spent weeks and month at his atelier.
Later I made a similar acquaintance of a grand old lady in Northern Italy. Whenever I found the time I just sat there and watched how they worked at her atelier. Many older craftspeople are highly interested in the work of younger designers and they eagerly share their knowledge with us.