cowhide

Is there a graceful way to use cowhide scraps?

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Summary

As with any material, when cowhide is used commercially, there are many small scraps leftover. I set out to find an application for these offcuts. I originally became interested in the material during my years raising cattle, and when I began graduate school it was one of the first projects I undertook. Cowhide is an extremely luxurious material, displaying a huge variety of colors, ranging from stark white to dark black with rusts, chestnuts, creams and straws between. It can also have a wonderful, silky texture and a range of flexibilities. I wanted to showcase these attributes in material whose small size and odd shape would otherwise result in a trip to the trash. And after many false starts, I was successful.

Starting Point

Three big garbage bags full of hairy cowhide scraps.

research + process

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I began with some basic research to help me understand different types of leather, the tanning process, sourcing and applications. I reached out to some industry experts from apparel and footwear companies in Portland who provided useful context and practical guidance for my undertaking. I referenced current applications for cowhide in interior design, accessories and apparel.

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Then I started experimenting. First I tried attaching the odd-shaped pieces together in various ways, each result more ‘rustic’ than the last. Next I tried steam shaping, which was successful in making the whole studio building smell like a dog-food factory, but otherwise showed no promise for such small pieces of material.

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Inspired by folding flip-flops from the pedicurist, I decided to try for a 2D shape that could be folded into something 3D. Exciting possibility, but still really limited by the scrap size.

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So next I tried making a small, modular shape that could be repeated and attached to its neighbor infinitely.

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Eventually deciding on the square version (to avoid gaps in the finished whole), I prototyped 100+ of the shape by hand.

Encouraged by my rough prototype, I got a die made, traded use of a friend’s press for some cheese and punched A LOT of the shape. I then sorted them by hue and began ‘weaving’ them together row by row. I was unhappy with the final size, so got a 6-up die made, traded use of a different friend’s press for some beer, and punched A LOT more.

Results

The final rug was approximately 10’x5’. I chose to assemble in a gradient to showcase the range of color inherent in the hide and create visual cohesion. Because it is composed of modular pieces, it could be reassembled in any pattern or size desired.

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Impact

The final product was greeted with enthusiasm by those who saw and touched it, leading to two commissions.

Reflections

  • I wish I got a six-up die sooner. Punching one at a time was not an efficient use of time!

  • I did some experimenting with fabricating 3D shapes, which showed some promise, but the material was often to supple to support its own weight. It would be interesting to pursue this further.

  • Likewise, further exploration of alternate modular shapes would be an avenue worth exploring.

  • It might be useful to attach a backing somehow for increased durability, but I have been reluctant to do so because I don’t want to compromise modularity.