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Sunderland Leather a survivor in a vanished industry

Sunderland Leather a survivor in a vanished industry

Company that processed bison hide for Olympic gloves is among the last of its kind in Fulton County
Sunderland Leather a survivor in a vanished industry
Matthew Smrtic of Sunderland Leather shows a sample of rawhide Tuesday.
Photographer: PETER R. BARBER

GLOVERSVILLE — In a city famous for generations for leather tanning and glove making, one of the few remaining leather shops has a niche market that keeps it going strong.

Sunderland Leather gained attention last week when the U.S. athletes wore gloves made of its bison leather at the 2018 Winter Olympics opening ceremony. But the bigger news for some people might have been that there is still a viable full-service leather company in the Glove Cities, where so many tanneries and glove shops went out of business in the late 20th century.

Sunderland has multiple ties to the past through the family that runs it, the building it operates from and the business it perseveres with.

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Matthew and Leslie Smrtic operate the business started by her father, the late William Studenic; Studenic’s father also ran a tannery.

Sunderland’s building off Kingsboro Avenue also harkens back to the Glove Cities’ past: It’s a century-old former silk mill with wooden floors and exposed brick inside, as well as some 60- to 80-year-old leatherworking equipment alongside the newer electronic equipment.

Crucially, the Smrtics also own and operate Colonial Tanning, the last working tannery in Gloversville. This gives Sunderland flexibility and agility in marketing its leather, and provides a stream of income from contract tanning for other leather companies.

“They’re the bedrock of the organization,” Matthew Smrtic said of Colonial. The two companies have a combined 34 employees.

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Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul is planning to visit Sunderland on Friday to congratulate it for bringing positive attention to New York manufacturing with the leather it created for the Olympic gloves.

INDUSTRY FADED

Trustees of the Fulton County Museum, next door to Sunderland, provided some historic perspective Thursday: Leathermaking in what is now Fulton County had its roots with the Native Americans who first settled the area but got its formal start when Sir William Johnson brought over glove makers from Perth, Scotland, in 1750. 

The industry peaked after World War I, with two dozen tanneries in Gloversville alone, 122 glove companies, various support industries including button and box factories, and a sizeable corps of people doing piecework from their homes. All told, 15,000 to 20,000 people worked in the local glove and related industries 90 years ago, equal to more than the entire population of Gloversville today and more than twice the population of Johnstown.

Cheaper foreign competition starting in the 1950s set the industry on its downward path. By the end of the 20th century, it was a shell of its former self in Fulton County.

Today there are just two working tanneries left in the county: Colonial in Gloversville and Simco in Johnstown. A handful of other companies turn out leather and leather products, all of them specialty goods.

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Smrtic said the competition that marked the Glove Cities in the golden years of its leather industry is gone. Also vanished are the supply and service infrastructure that supported the industry.

“As there’s less and less businesses, there’s less and less support industries,” he said adding that the few survivors have developed a mutual respect if not camaraderie.

“We don’t share our trade secrets,” he said, but companies might share supplies, for example, if someone can’t get a shipment in time.

Sunderland works closely with Adjon, a company that shares space in the old silk mill and shares administrative duties.

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The industry is perhaps 2 percent of what it once was in the county, Smrtic said, which he blames on a combination of rising labor costs, a domestic crackdown on pollution and the growth of cheap foreign competition.

“My father-in-law invested in the environmental [controls]. It was a big expense, it remains an expense,” Smrtic said, but the local industry has turned a corner from old days when it was known as a heavy polluter.

A harder issue to address, a generation after the leather industry collapsed locally, is the dwindling ranks of those who worked in it.

The collective knowledge and the culture built through thousands of combined years of leather work diminishes with each retirement and funeral and with every moving van heading south. 

And yet the collective memory of the industry’s collapse remains strong enough that few people would bet their future on a job that opened up.

“That’s probably going to be the biggest obstacle,” Smrtic said.

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Most of Sunderland’s workforce is past the midway point in their careers. Turnover is low, but some are close to retirement. 

The work pays well, but the money is hard-earned. Tannery work is hot and heavy, and handling the skins of dead animals is not something everyone wants to do.

Smrtic himself worked in a local tannery during summers as a teen, making twice as much as his friends who took easier jobs, but when it was time to choose a career, he went to Clarkson University and became a civil engineer. (Circumstances brought him into his wife’s family’s business a decade later, in 1999.)

Where the family business goes next is hard to say. The Smrtics’ three children have all worked there in the summers as they grew up, but the oldest has chosen another career and the other two haven’t committed to leather.

The family will need to figure out a succession plan in the next decade or so, Smrtic said.

THE NICHE

Sunderland has suffered from cheap foreign competition just like other U.S. leather companies, Smrtic said.

“It’s been difficult over the years to survive based on the policies,” he said. Foreign industries and governments have successfully manipulated markets, he said, and enjoy lower labor and environmental protection costs.

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The big advantage for Sunderland when the leather industry collapsed was that it wasn’t mass-processing cow hides.

“We were fortunate enough to be a niche business,” Smrtic said. Sunderland in the 1970s was heavily focused on sheep leather, he explained, and the best sheep skins came from Iran. That source was cut off abruptly after the Islamic revolution there, and Studenic decided to rely thereafter on domestically sourced hides, especially deer.

Today, deerskin leather is Sunderland’s main product, about 1 million square feet a year. Bison leather is the other specialty — about a half-million square feet annually.

Sunderland processes smaller quantities of goat, sheep, moose and elk hide, and will even produce a little cow leather, on special request.

The U.S. military has become an important customer, because its suppliers must use domestically produced components.

“Our biggest business is military,” Smrtic said. “You wouldn’t believe how many gloves the military goes through.”

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The other way Sunderland keeps itself afloat is through quality control.

“Deer skin is such a niche business,” Smrtic said. “The only way to survive is to be the best in that industry.”

QUALITY CONTROL

Walking through the Sunderland workshop, one appreciates the effort that goes into quality control: Hides arrive in every conceivable condition, and are assigned one of as many as 30 grades.

The deer hides are typically from animals that have been hunted in the wild, and most have entry and exit wounds plainly visible. An experienced eye can tell whether a bullet or arrowhead made the holes.

The tiny tick bite holes pepper some hides, and are considered a major defect, except by designers who want a distressed look to their product.

Bison hides don’t have bullet holes in them, but neither do they always arrive in perfect condition. The bison is essentially a free-range semiwild animal, and they get banged up by each other and their surroundings before slaughter.

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When a tanned hide comes in to Sunderland, workers with heavy-duty shears trim away the ragged edges and cut out the worst of the defects, which can include thorn scars and dung burns.

There’s a balancing act involved, Smrtic said. Customers don’t want to pay for leather they can’t use. 

So is it better to trim away all the defects and boost the price on the small remainder, or is it better to remove just the severe defects and leave something flawed but still usable and more affordable? 

The answer: Each hide is unique. The value of decades of experience is knowing what to do with each one that lands on the bench.

“It’s very subjective,” Smrtic said.

As he spoke Tuesday, he stood amid the tanned hides of perhaps 10,000 deer, neatly piled in stacks. 

Many hundreds are secured on pallets, awaiting pickup by Italian buyers who will dye the leather themselves back in Italy.

Various other stacks of hides await shipment to Vermont and California and Germany.

A few hair-on deer hides await shipment for sale as wall decorations.

A few de-haired skins will become the business end of Native American drums.

Piles of goatskin await fabrication into gloves, perhaps water- or flame- or current-resistant, depending on what they’ll be used for.

The very best of the top-grain bison hides — thick, heavy, deeply pebbled and with a lustrous brown glow after multiple stages of processing at Sunderland and Colonial — will be made into purses and shoes in Europe.

“These are spectacular skins,” Smrtic says, holding one up.

He sounds matter-of-fact but seems proud, as well. 

He’s justified in both as he holds that piece of leather.


The process

Here’s how raw skin becomes finished leather at Sunderland Leather:

  • A hide broker makes an offer on a batch of animal hides that have been salted and dried, which preserves them in the short term but not forever.
  • Sunderland buys the hides and ships them to Colonial Tanning, where they are inspected, sorted and warehoused.
  • Deer hides are tanned November through August, as many as 10,000 a week. Bison hides are tanned August through November. Goat and sheep hides are tanned one day a week year-round. The hides of other species are tanned as demand requires and capacity permits.
  • On processing day, hides are washed clean of salt and debris, which leaves them moist and soft.
  • Any flesh in the inside of the hide is removed with a fleshing machine.
  • The hair on the outside of the hide is removed with high-pH chemicals.
  • The clean, bare hide is put through a chrome tanning process that leaves it with a bluish tint and able to endure heat and moisture for years to come.
  • The hide is treated with fat liquor, a synthetic oil that lubricates the fibers.
  • The hides are transported four blocks to Sunderland, where they are sorted, graded, trimmed as needed and split to the desired thickness.
  • The hides go back to Colonial for dying, with color matching to the customer’s swatch.
  • The hides go back to Sunderland for quality and color inspection, then are shipped to the customer.
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