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The fish skin artisan at Fanlac, Dordogne


Hidden away upon one of the Dordogne hills, Fanlac was made famous in France by Eugene Le Roy’s Jacquou le Croquant, a novel set in this picturesque village which was subsequently the location for filming the story for a popular TV series and a film in 2007…

Famous as it is in France, the little town in the Dordogne Department of Aquitaine, could easily be missed by visitors, which would be a shame as it is a pretty village of higgledy piggledy houses made from the local golden coloured stone and very typical of the area. It is also the home of a workshop tucked away among the houses and pigeonniers, on one of the narrow lanes just off the village square with its 12th century fortified church. Anyone intrigued enough to follow the sign saying ‘Leather Artisan’ and marked with two fish, will end up in a story that takes them away from the tourist attractions of the surrounding village and places them amongst a largely forgotten native Siberian tribe.

Hard at work in his dark studio with its long wooden tables and display cases is Kristof Mascher, who is only too pleased to take time off to explain the history of his work with leather. His pictures, bags, belts and cases are all hand made by Kristof and incorporate designs in what looks like, at first glance, snake skin.

fish skin bag

“Not at all,” laughs Kristof, “I use only the skins of sturgeon and salmon that have been farmed for food and then tanned using only vegetable products and dyes.  It is a very ecologically-friendly product.”

In south-east Siberia, an indigenous people called the Nanais developed a specialised tanning technique for fish skin which allowed them to make waterproof clothing.

anatol-donkan-germany“My grandfather’s grandfather was a merchant who travelled round the villages collecting examples of native costumes,” resumes Kristof. “He subsequently donated them to museums in Europe. My uncle, who was researching his life, came across a descendent of this tribe, Anatol Donkan, who is now a renowned artist in the field of native sculpture. Following extensive research and experimentation, Anatol managed to improve on the Nanais’ technique of tanning fish skin, as the original method produced skins that were partly raw and still smelled of fish. In collaboration with a Swiss specialist, Anatol has worked to improve and modernise the ancient method and has succeeded in producing a tear-proof fish skin leather using only plant extracts.”

Today there are 10,000 surviving Nanais, but only the oldest ones still speak their own language. Their culture has mostly been annihilated and forgotten. Anatol Donkan has worked tirelessly to restore their place in history and to give them back one of the old traditions.

Anatol produces the fish skin leather using his unique technique and Kristof uses them in his exquisite handcrafted creations. Kristof demonstrates the superiority of Anatol’s leather by showing visitors other skin, this time processed with chemicals in a dangerous procedure that leaves the fish skin flabby and a uniform dull grey.

fish skin product“I inlay the fish skin leather, using its unique colouring, design and shading to produce different effects,” explains Kristof. “The designs I make on the bags are my little homage to nature: leaves, fish, flowers, or the sun, for example.”

Kristof spends some time each year taking parties canoeing down Mongolian rivers.  He was born in Sweden but his mother was German, so he mostly sells his work either from his atelier or at annual craft fairs in Germany. He left home as a young man to work his way through France and eventually learned his craft as an apprentice to a Parisian leather craftsman who later moved to the Dordogne. Kristof also made his home here and now his eldest son is working with him and learning the business and ensuring this little-known craft continues…

By Janet Duignan who lives in the Dordogne. She has in depth knowledge of the leather trade gained in Argentina and on her world wide travels.

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