You were the first company in the world to develop a way of tanning fish skins to leather. You mentioned that it all started with an enormous pile of waste material from the fisheries?
The fishing industry here in Iceland alone throws away thousands of tons of fish skins every year, literally mountains of them. The annual catch is in the region of 320,000 tons and 25,000 tons of that is just the skins! Skin makes up 8% of the average fish.
Eight percent is a huge proportion. You were a fisherman from a young age, how did it happen that you now own a fish tannery?
It was more accident than plan. I was 21 and fisherman when one
day the boat I worked on caught fire. No one was injured, and I wasn't
on board when the fire broke out but, overnight, I found myself unemployed.
Knowing that I wouldn't be able to go back to fishing for at least a year, I contacted an acquaintance of mine who was a supervisor at the tannery and looking for employees. At that time, they were producing just sheepskin and lamb and sheep leather. I started as a regular worker. And I'm still here (laughs).
I saw a lot of opportunities for the company and within two years I became production manager and a few years after that CEO.
Making leathers out of fish is an old tradition in Iceland, isn't it? I read somewhere that fish skins were used as house slippers - is that true?
Yes, they were used for that purpose for a long time, even though the
old methods for using fish skins were more akin to drying than tanning -
so not leather, per se - and the slippers must have smelled pretty strongly!
We went through a long phase of trial and error while developing our technique. We started in 1991 and it was five years before we had what we regarded as a workable and interesting result. It still had a strong fish smell, however, so we continued experimenting and it was 2000 before we finally had a product we felt was right.
It took you nine years to get from the idea to a product you were happy with?
Exactly, it took a decade until we had a result that we could really call fish leather, with the softness that we wanted, something we were able to proudly show to customers.
How did you start with the fish skins?
We started with mainly wolffish and some salmon. It was tricky to
get them soft since the fish skins in their raw state, when they are
just off the fish, are very frail. They can only tolerate very low
temperatures, up to 20 degrees Celsius, or they break and dissolve.
But before that we had to find a way to clean the fish skins, mainly of the fat, which was still attached to them. We had to do this to prevent the leather from smelling bad. We also had to open up the skins to absorb the tanning agent, which involves altering the proteins and collagen in the fish. The proteins have to be opened up without dissolving the skin - a very delicate procedure. We produced a lot of fish soup while developing this method (laughs).
Is that when you introduced the fish leather?
It had been on my mind for a while. We did some test samples and realised that the texture was really something nice, unique. Since we already had a stable business with the lambskins, we were able to take the time to develop the procedure for tanning fish skins. If we had started with just the fish this wouldn't have been possible. Nowadays, the business is divided about 50:50 between the lamb and fish leathers, but we hope to further increase the fish leather production.
Was it simply a passion to create something new that led you to develop the fish leather?
In the beginning we made lamb leather and fur for garments
but that market became difficult for us; countries with far lower
labour costs we developing in that sector. They were providing excellent
quality alongside the lower prices and we realised that in the long-term
we had to focus on something else.
But it was definitely my general enthusiasm for leather that put things in motion. The fish leather caught my interest early on and I started to read everything I could find about tanning.
This was Part One of the Interview with
Gunnstein, to read Part Two click here.