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Faking it

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These ice skating boots in Fashion Detective are a bit of a mystery. The catalogue entry reads: ‘early to mid 20thC skating boots’…and not much else. Peer a little closer (or with a stereomicroscope and x-ray, very close) however, and fascinating stories unfurl.

On each steel blade is a tiny debossed insignia – “J.P.B JR with a pair of winged skating boots, then “9 ½/BEST QUALITY/WARRANTED TEMPER” in larger letters. High quality, expensive items perhaps, sold as a whole, rather than as separate blades to be screwed onto a spare pair of boots. They certainly appear to have been worn and well used – although we will never know by whom.

Inside these plain black boots lies a luxurious lining of tan suede leather, with a tongue thickly padded against the cold. X-ray evidence suggests a probable padding of wool; it also reveals evidence of careful repair (note the eyelet size difference visible in the x-ray).

Yet the real surprise is when the uppers are found to be fake – or more correctly an early example of ‘leather cloth’. Leather has distinct characteristics: the histology and grain has a meandering, highly individual pattern of differently shaped cells which vary according to the animal and section of skin used. Leather cloth, by contrast, typically exhibits a pattern which follows the base cloth beneath.  Our boots possess a regular, grid like pattern of squares that become visible on close inspection.  Artificial leathers entered large scale production in the early 20th Century.  Most were a combination of rubber products and solvents which were hot roller-pressed onto a cloth backing, sometimes embossed with an image of leather grain, and then sealed with an early plastic formula. And yes, there is evidence they smelt bad.

At first glance, it does seem that these boots have been made the wrong way around, with artificial leather covering fine suede. But it is a window into an earlier world when new synthetic materials did not always mean cheap or ‘fake’. One of the chief virtues of artificial leather was that it had very limited moisture permeability, undoubtedly a key reason for using it to make this pair of ice skates. The exterior acts as a waterproof layer, while the suede lining provides absorption and comfort for the foot.

Perhaps we should view these boots as an example of early explorations into fabric technology for sports?