Well, tan my hide

MARYSVILLE – You can get a nice golden-brown hide at Quil Ceda Tanning.

Where: 3922 88th St. NE, Marysville

What: Makes leather out of animal hides – primarily game like elk, deer and moose. It also sells a line leather garments under its own Quil Ceda Leather label, and does custom tanning for individuals.

Founded: 1932 as Jansha Tanning. Company became Quil Ceda Tanning in 1981, when some employees bought into the business.

Employees: It’s a seasonal business, employing up to 11 in the tannery and five in the retail shop during the peak season in the fall.

Online: www.quilceda leather.com

Or, if you’d prefer, they’ll make your elk hide into soft black or red leather. The company makes rawhide and leather out of the skins of deer, moose “and more and more buffalo,” said Mike Warden, one of the partner owners. “We’ll do everything here.”

The company was founded in Marysville in 1932, decades before the word “tanning” became associated with those banks of ultraviolet lights people lay under to turn human skin a darker color. Warden and partners Harry and Sara Fifield joke about having to turn away swimsuit-clad young women who think they’re running a tanning salon.

Instead, they’re following an ancient tradition, using processes and equipment that have changed only a little since the dawn of the 20th century.

“It’s pretty labor-intensive,” Warden said. “People think it just sort of morphs into leather.”

Quil Ceda is one of about two dozen companies still tanning leather for clothing in the United States, Harry Fifield said. Only a handful remain in the West – the company’s nearest competitor is in Salt Lake City.

The process of tanning leather hasn’t changed much over the years. Quil Ceda has used the same equipment for decades, including a splitting machine – which shaves the leather down to the specified thickness – that according to company lore was found laying on a dock in San Francisco during World War I.

Company founder Mathias Jansha brought it north with him when he came to Marysville to start the business during the Great Depression.

“When we go out of business,” Warden quipped, “the Smithsonian will be in here to grab this stuff.”

But the business has changed, and the U.S. industry is dying. Most leather tanning now is done in China and Italy, where labor costs are lower. The past two years, Harry Fifield said, Chinese buyers have scoured the U.S. market, buying up raw hides.

“They pushed the price way up,” he said.

To counter, Quil Ceda is expanding its presence on the Internet, using that to sell more of its own Quil Ceda Leather garments. “We’re making an effort to go out to reach new customers,” Fifield said.

The majority of the animal hides they use are from wild game. Individual hunters will bring in one hide at a time. That custom tanning accounts for about a third of Quil Ceda’s business, Fifield said. But the majority comes from process hides for brokers, who will collect thousands of animal skins that they’ll ship to Marysville by the truckload from as far away as Texas and Wisconsin.

The process of turning those hides into leather takes about three weeks. The hides are covered with salt to remove moisture, then soaked in baths of water and chemicals that dissolve the hair and remove the grease. The hides are stretched and dried, split and scraped until what’s left is a soft, pliable leather.

There’s a lot of hand labor involved, Fifield said. “Some of the big hides, like the moose, elk or buffalo, it takes two guys to throw them up there.”

Some of the leather is shipped across the border to Canada where it is sewn into a line of jackets, vests and gloves for the Quil Ceda Leather label.

Other pieces are sold to a network of wholesale hide and leather dealers across the West and Midwest. Some of the leather becomes custom-tailored clothing, sewn for customers by a local seamstress, while others became baby booties sold out of the shop.

The tannery also makes rough-finished rawhides, which it sells largely to drum makers.

The tannery is “a manufacturing business,” Warden said. “But we’re a wholesaler and a retailer, too.”

Gary Schroeder of Moscow Hide and Fur in Moscow, Idaho, has been a Quil Ceda customer since the 1970s.

He buys hides from a network of collectors who gather skins from hunters in the rural towns of north-central Idaho.

“We buy deer, elk, moose, cowhides … we take it over there and they make it into buckskin for us,” Schroeder said.

In turn, he sells the finished leather nationwide through his mail-order business.

While much leather manufacturing has gone overseas, Schroeder said he sticks with Quil Ceda.

“The first thing is they’re close, and they do a good job,” he said. “They’re price competitive. What else do you want?”

The business also has a reputation for integrity, Schroeder said. If you send them a premium hide, they’ll send the premium hide back, he said. “They have a good customer base because they’re honest.”

Warden said the company is working harder to sell its leather, emphasizing its “Made in U.S.A.” character.

The efforts are working, he said. Sales are up 34 percent year-to-date in 2005 – in part, he said, because the tough Chinese competition has killed off some of their American competitors, leaving them new opportunities.

“Leather’s harder to come by,” he said. “The base is out there. Leather still is a high-commodity product. And because we’re still here, we’re picking up.”

Reporter Bryan Corliss: 425-339-3454 or corliss@heraldnet.com.

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