An Icelandic Fish Leather Pioneer

In the very North of Iceland in a majestic landscape between snowy Fjords and mighty rivers, Gunnsteinn manages his company, a fish tannery, with great passion and a spirit for the environment. Katherine Batliner visited Gunnstein and his tannery to see where the material she works with originate.

Katherine: You were one of the first companies to develop a way of tanning fish skins into leather. Was it a difficult process?

Gunnsteinn: It took years as we went through a long phase of trial and error. We started in 1991 and it took us nine years until we had what we regarded as a workable and interesting result.
First we started with wolffish and salmon. We had to find a way to clean the fish and to open them up 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. 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 about 20° Celsius, or they fall apart. We produced a lot of fish soup in the beginning (laughs).

Katherine: 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?

Gunnsteinn: Yes, but the old methods were more akin to dying than to tanning, so what you had in the end wasn't exactly leather, and it must have smelled pretty terrible! One of our biggest challenges was completely eradicating the fish smell. That took a lot of time.

The fresh salmon skins they have to be skinned and tanned within a few hours, otherwise they dissolve
The surface is controlled under special light
Wastewaters from tanning are cleaned for reuse

Katherine: You were a fisherman from a young age. How did it happen that you now own a fish tannery?

Gunnstein: It was more accident than plan. I was 21 and a fisherman when one day the boat I worked on caught fire. No one was injured, but overnight I found myself unemployed.
An acquaintance of mine was a supervisor at the tannery and looking for employees. At the time, they were producing just sheepskin and lamb leather, we then realised that in future we would need a new product, more countries with far lower labour costs were pushing into the market with good quality products.
So the fact that the fishing industry in Iceland alone threw away thousands and thousands of tons of fish skins each year, literally mountains of them became our chance. It was great, because I had always had those fish skins mountains that I knew from fishery in my mind.

Katherine: You are not small with more than 20 employees. Did you have any experience in managing such a company?

Gunnstein: 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. A few years after that I became the CEO.

Sikki adds the colour to the tanning drum, he has developed hundreds of different colour shades

Katherine: Fish leather is still a very new material; Why do you think it has such potential?

Gunnstein: Fish leather is still exotic but, as a by-product of the fishing industry, it is environmentally friendly and highly durable, it is seven times more resistant than for example calf leather. Moreover, far less chemicals are needed to dye fish skins.
For me every fish is unique, through all the years of working with fish leather, I kind of fell in love with it. The scales, the spots, all the natural peculiarities have changed the way we work. Nowadays we more and more preserve the natural characteristics of the raw material.

Katherine: There is great enthusiasm for fish leather, among other as an ecological alternative, but on production side we have to adapt the design to it's unusual shape. I call it "Form Follows Fish" (laughs) and I like that challenge. But it took me many years to find the artisans that are able work with the material. How much does this influence using the material for a wider range?

Gunnstein: We do get a lot of attention for the newness, the unique look and the touch of fish leather, most people generally like the idea. Almost everybody I talk to would like to make something out of the fish skin. But the main barrier remains the size. You can say, the designers love it, while the producers don't. It is too small. It is easier to cut from something bigger. Therefore, at the moment fish leather is often used by high-end brands and in hand-made production.

Gunnsteinn's son will one day take over the company, he now learns each and every step of the process
Sigga, Gunnsteinn's wife manages logistics as well as all organisational tasks

Katherine: It looks like there is a vibrant social life in your company, and I also saw that you even have a in-house Kindergarten organised by your employees ?

Gunnstein: We always try to provide an environment in which family and work can easily co-exist, the women can return to work and their children are nearby. My whole family works here as well, my wife, daughter, son and daughter in law.
We Icelanders are a society that is based on farming and fisheries. So I think that is why we have such an equality between women and men. Because it has always been like that: everyone had to work.

Katherine: We're in the very north of Iceland, in a small town of only 2500 inhabitants. Does the rather remote location have its disadvantages?

Gunnstein: No, I enjoy living here very much and it isn't hard to convince people to move here! It's a great community, very family friendly. It's a marvellous place to raise kids – the schools are good, and it's safe, the children can be free and grow up surrounded by nature.

Owing to the sheep tannery the fish tanning could be developed, nowadays each consists of 50%
Icelands amazing landscape was shaped by volcanes and water

Katherine: We asked your employees their favourite fish leather and almost everyone said spotted wolffish because somehow, this is the Icelandic fish: it lives here, it's tough, it survives and it's ugly (laughs)!

Gunnstein: ....and it's very ugly (laughs)! We often say, the uglier the fish is, the better it tastes.

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