Seeking eco-friendly material, Israeli innovators look to scale up fish-skin handbags

A designer and an engineer join an EU-funded project to test the viability of recycling piscine waste into leather for the fashion industry; they feel success is in the bag

Sharon Wrobel is a tech reporter for The Times of Israel.

In a joint project, Ori Topaz, a designer from Shenkar College produces sustainable leather handbags made from salmon skins using digital printing technology developed by Kornit Digital. (Achikam Ben Yosef)
In a joint project, Ori Topaz, a designer from Shenkar College produces sustainable leather handbags made from salmon skins using digital printing technology developed by Kornit Digital. (Achikam Ben Yosef)

Two Israeli researchers, one in the field of leather design and one in print technology, are seeking to revive the age-old craft of making leather from fish skin — a sustainable raw material generated from waste — and have produced eco-friendly handbags with different patterns and digital prints for the fashion industry.

The practice of transforming fish skin into leather, once used by indigenous Arctic people in Northern Europe and Asia to make garments and accessories, has been experiencing something of a comeback in recent years as the fashion industry is increasingly looking to become less wasteful. Fish leather has also caught the eye of high-end designers who want to incorporate it into luxury clothing items.

However, it has yet to break into the industrial end of the fashion world.

Ira Farber, head of the chemistry group at print manufacturing company Kornit Digital, and Ori Topaz, a designer at Shenkar College of Engineering, Design and Art, participated in an EU-funded research project that examined the viability of turning fish skins into an eco-friendly leather that can be produced at an industrial scale for the fashion industry. The project, initiated in 2020, was led by a research consortium of organizations and academic institutions from six countries.

As part of the joint project, Farber and Topaz combined creativity with engineering, overcoming the technological hurdles that faced digital ink printing on fish skin, to design and manually craft two artisanal handbags, which they say serve as a proof of concept that they can be manufactured on an industrial level.

Fish skin is a fish industry byproduct that mostly gets tossed into landfills or thrown back into the sea, resulting in millions of tons of waste that pose a threat to natural ecosystems. And the use of fish for animal protein is expected to grow.

“The idea here was to take the waste materials of one industry, of the fish industry, and reuse them as a new raw material for the fashion industry that is always thirsty for new materials and new concepts, especially when they come with a sustainable statement — something that we can make sure is reliable and has a great impact,” said Topaz.

“Working with fish skin serves as a proof of concept for combining leftovers in an applicable, sustainable and aesthetic way, to stimulate change in the world of fashion, and to open up new possibilities for designers.”

Leather crusts made of salmon fish skin. (Ori Topaz)

The fashion industry is one of the largest polluters in the world, according to the United Nations. Fashion is responsible for up to 8% of global carbon dioxide output, and textile dyeing is a major polluter of water, according to the United Nations Environment Program. It is the second most polluting industry after the oil and gas industry, accounting for 1.2 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually.

Turning fish skin into leather does not require the same resources or leave the same carbon footprint as raising cattle does, and does not use endangered species or involve ethical concerns surrounding animal agriculture.

Fish leather can be made from the skin of any type of fish, including cod, carp, catfish, salmon and others. Once it gets stretched, dried and tanned, it’s durable, odor-free, and stronger than conventional cow leather, according to Topaz.

“Most people, when they see the material made of fish skin, one of the first things they do is to try and smell it, and they are very surprised because it smells like a very good genuine leather,” said Topaz. “It is stronger than cow leather because the fiber structure is more like a net as it has to withstand water pressure.”

“It has a great texturized appearance, more like exotic leathers such as croc skin, an appearance very much desired in the fashion industry,” she added.

For the collaborative project, salmon skins were sourced from Nordic Fish Leather, a sustainable tannery house in Iceland.

Ori Topaz, researcher and designer at Shenkar College. (Achikam Ben Yosef)

“The tanning process of fish skin is much shorter. You can achieve a leather in about three weeks — much shorter than for cowhides, sheep and goat skins which take around three months,” Topaz remarked.

After the tanning, the skin turns into what is known in the process as a crust, or a leather material with a very basic shape. Then it’s dyed, colored or has a pattern applied.

This is where Kornit Digital’s role in the joint project comes in. The Rosh Ha’ayin-based firm is a developer of digital printing technologies and techniques for the clothing and textile industries and is a pioneer in producing nontoxic, water-based inks used for printing patterns directly on garments or fabrics.

“Fish skin is not a textile, so that’s why we had to develop a completely different printing process and make adjustments including matching the chemistry of the ink to the new substrate,” said Kornit’s Farber, a chemist at heart. “We also applied different software and calibration to reproduce very vivid and accurate colors.”

“For the final step of the printing process, it was crucial to modify the drying process, because of the sensitivity of the media, which can undergo deformation or shrinkage under elevated temperature,” Farber explained.

Topaz noted that one of the disadvantages of fish skin is the fact that it comes in small pieces of different irregular shapes, which are challenging to unite. One of the two handbags produced for the joint project was made of six skins, the other of ten.

Israeli technology developed by Kornit Digital for digital printing on fish skin is used for the design and production of fish leather handbags in collaboration with Shenkar College. (Courtesy)

“The machine we used is for T-shirts with a printing table of about 40 by 50 centimeters (15-20 inches), which can accommodate between four and five skins, which is the equivalent of goatskin, which the leather industry uses massively, mostly for medium to small-sized handbags and purses and stuff like that,” Topaz said. “With the printing technology, we were able to conceal the connecting lines, which is usually what makes the bag look less attractive.”

Topaz added that with the use of digital printing technology, “you can have the basic material, but then you can give it a new appearance every season or every year, in a much more sustainable way, because other processes such as coloring or dyeing usually don’t involve clean or green processes.”

Topaz believes that handbags are a good size for the joint project, which focused on creating a case study for industrial production of fish leather in the fashion industry.

“We researched how leather handbags are manufactured and, with small adjustments, we were able to reconstruct the chain process using fish skin and created a type of guide to show how it can be done with the printing technology giving full control of the visual appearance – a user manual to produce in massive quantities,” said Topaz.

Asked about the cost aspect, Topaz reckons that the price difference between a cow leather bag and one made from fish skin will not be enormous.

Ira Farber, Chemistry Group Manager at Kornit Digital. (Courtesy)

“If you are a conscious buyer and sustainability is important to you — which we are seeing a lot with customers today, as they want to know what they are buying and where it is coming from — then it is worth the money, it is worth the investment,” she believes.

Both Farber and Topaz are optimistic and convinced of the growth of recycled fish skin-based products, such as clothing.

“What we would need now is for an industrial partner — a small to medium-sized business — to pick up where we left off and take this on,” said Topaz.

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