Photos by Ethan Harrison
Pergamena in Montgomery utilizes the centuries-old method of vegetable tanning to create high-quality leather and parchment from Hudson Valley animal skins.
The Hudson Valley’s vast array of artisans often looks to the past for inspiration. Distillers use heritage techniques like floor malting, mountainside hotels carry the traditions of their ancestors, and cider producers turn to the roots of the region. There’s nothing like doing something the old-fashioned way, after all.
That’s what Jesse Meyer, the founder and owner of Pergamena tannery in Montgomery, believes. In Orange County, he and his team use a natural process called vegetable tanning that goes back to the very origins of leather.
“Tanning as an industry has been around for thousands of years. Until the mid-19th century, [using] vegetable extracts was really the only way to tan leather,” Meyer says. As he explains, early vegetable tanners chopped up bark and leaves to fill large pits. They then removed animal hides and placed them in the mixture for a very long time. Natural chemicals called tannins (found in wines) from the plant matter penetrated the hide, creating durable and sometimes colorful leathers.
In the 1860s, German technologist Friedrich Knapp and Hylten Cavalin from Sweden invented the chrome tanning process. This sped up the whole affair by using chromium compounds to create a thinner, stretchier leather that tanned much faster.
“It had a lot of benefits in that way, but back then they were all about embracing the wonders of modern chemistry without looking so much at the drawbacks…Heavy metals getting into groundwater is a huge problem, and this has made tanneries famous for being a high-polluting industry. They’ve certainly cleaned up their act a lot, but what we’ve found is it’s better to not deal with chrome at all and stick with the traditional processes,” Meyer says.
Pergamena uses pyrogallol, a vegetable tanning agent. In line with tradition, the materials are often harvested from trees such as chestnut, oak, sumac, myrabolan, and tara. Plant-based substances do not pose the same carcinogenic risk as some of the chrome-tanning agents.
As a small company, Pergamena must fill a niche to survive and thrive. That niche is as a heritage tannery that crafts high-quality leather, parchment, and other goods while avoiding the contamination issues for which the industry is infamous. More modern products like purses, upholstery, and furniture come from very old techniques.
Pergamena’s commitment to the original methods extends to machinery; some of the tools and devices used daily at the Montgomery-based tannery were built as early as 1898. Simply machines mean that Meyer and his team can troubleshoot and fix everything on their own, without relying on heavy electronics with more complex issues. Before the pandemic, curious Hudson Valleyites could even get a bit of hands-on experience with the tanning process at Pergamena.
What started as a request from local book-binding communities turned into regular programming at Pergamena. Often a two-day process, Meyer has been teaching workshops for nearly two decades now. He demonstrates exactly how something rather grotesque materials like dead animal skin can become something truly beautiful.
“Most people know where leather comes from, but to actually see the process with your own two eyes and handle the material, transforming it yourself is really an eye-opening experience,” Meyer says.
Pergamena uses a wide variety of animal hides, including cow, goat, sheep, and deer. Over the years, Meyer has worked more and more with Hudson Valley farms to source skins. In every aspect of raising livestock, from farmer to butcher to tanner, the Hudson Valley has developed a greater focus on sustainability and whole-animal practices. Known as the “fifth quarter,” hides are unavoidable byproducts of livestock farming. As a tannery, Pergamena is a service to local farmers itself. In crafting gorgeous book bindings, chairs, and wallets, it ensures that no part of an animal goes to waste.
Throughout the Hudson Valley, Kinderhook Farms in Valatie, Back Paddock Farm in Ghent, and many other local farmers have started working with Pergamena.
“We’re working on a line of traceable leathers. It’s become something people are more and more interested in, in the same way that they want to know where their food comes from, where their textiles come from. We are trying to create a network, and certainly Hudson Valley farms are the place to start,” Meyer says.
Pergamena will soon partner on a new initiative that will offer leather made specifically from hides of pastured animals raised on regenerative farms. Their colleague Sara Grady is creating a company to source and market this material, connecting farmers with likeminded philosophies toward agriculture.
Patrons of Pergamena tannery have access to a ton of customization. Clients can request specific thickness, color, texture, and other characteristics of artisanal leather. Knowing that many of the hides come from well-run Hudson Valley farms is icing on the cake.
Pergamena draws upon the Meyer family’s long history of working with animal leathers. The earliest iteration of the family business started in the mid-1500s near Eisenberg in Bavaria. In the 1850s they moved to North Bergen, New Jersey, to be closer to the Steinway Piano Factory in Manhattan. The Meyers produced the leather piano action padding from deerskin and served Steinway for over 150 years. Under the name Richard E. Meyer & Sons, the company moved to the Hudson Valley in the 1980s for the abundance of deer in the region.
Meyer started Pergamena as a side project in 1999. The name means “Parchment” in Latin. After studying sculpture and other art forms, Mayer began experimenting with the medium of handmade parchment, a tradition that dates back thousands of years. Slowly, Pergamena’s parchment (used in everything from bookbinding to interior design) became the business’s most recognizable product. Eventually, the entire operation rebranded under Pergamena, pursuing craft parchment and continuing its work as a tannery.
Parchment is another component of the tannery workshops that Meyer has led for so many years.
“You know, parchment hasn’t really been needed since the Middle Ages and the Renaissance; it was replaced by paper. It’s not an occupation that 99 percent of the world knows about,” Meyer says. When he first set out to master the craft, he reached out to the very few people who still take up the trade. Mostly self-taught, he conferred with more experienced peers. Yet time and time again, he was turned down; no one wanted to give up information they themselves spent decades gathering.
“One of the things I’ve had people tell me is how much they appreciate the fact that I share this information with them. It’s been helpful to disseminate and get our name out there, but I’ve also learned a lot from other people,” Meyer says. “People from other industries or those that have tried this [trade] for themselves have introduced different materials or encouraged me to try new things. It’s a lot of experimentation from me, support from the community, and it keeps this trade alive.”