Untamed Tannery

April 2017

Untamed Tannery is a company developed by Steve and Sue Boot to transform New Zealand’s number one Pest into plush fur and leather products.

Possums were introduced to New Zealand 150 years ago to provide the base for a fur industry. Possum fur is hollow which makes it lightweight, with superior insulation characteristics.

The traditional way of harvesting possum in New Zealand was as a fur skin. This market had its heyday in the 1970s and the 1980s, but went into decline from 1987 onwards.

In the early 1990’s research demonstrated that possum fibre could be combined with merino wool. When spun with merino, a light, stable, and strong yarn is able to be produced that has superior heat retention properties and fur harvesting has given the industry a new direction.

2014 figures put the value of the possum industry at between $100 and $150 million, employing around1,500 workers.

Steve Boot has been in pest control, and the fur and skin recovery business, since 1977.   He was fulltime trapping in the days when a good skin could fetch $24.

Steve was instrumental in developing possum control courses, initially in association with the Taskforce Green programmes and later with the Gisborne polytech.

The course proved to be a sound beginning for those who enjoy being outdoors and who wanted to enter the animal pest control industry.  Steve also works in association with a company who develops, manufactures and distributes a wide range of pest control products.

In 1978 Sue joined Steve deep in the Waioeka bush for 16 months as a fulltime trapper. She has turned more than her share of possum tails over the years.

As well as the Untamed Tannery, Sue and Steve Boot run “Basically Bush”, a business that buys fur and skins from hunters.

The possum skins are processed in a tannery in Southern Hawkes Bay. Furriers then construct the creations on offer.

Sue describes possum as a mid-range manufacturing fur; ideal for trimmings, linings and accessories.  It also has many applications for home decor, as it can be manufactured into throws and cushions. It dyes well in all colours, and can be bleached.  When dyed and shorn to 15-20 mm it has a very similar appearance to mink.  The leather is also strong, and stitches well.

Sue & Steve and their team manage the entire process from raw material procurement, tanning, dying and manufacture. They select the very best pelts that are offered from professional hunters .

The basic steps of processing each raw pelt is:
1.     The fat is scraped off
2.     They are stretched on boards
3.     Then air dried
4.     A further scraping removes more excess fat and any loose membrane
5.     When completely dry they are removed from the boards
6.     The fur is brushed
7.     Then the skins are graded for size and quality

Grading is on the basis of re-growth, shine, density and fur length.

Alum is the key dressing material. Also known as Potassium Aluminium Sulphate, or Potash Alum. Soluble in water, the resulting solution is acidic and known to have astringent and antibacterial qualities. (It is also used in water purification and food processing and pickling.) When employed in pelt processing, alum produces a fine white leather that is very pliable. It is not considered to be environmentally damaging when diluted and is chemically stable.

When customers want to have pelts dyed, or pelts are needed for use in a high temperature, alum dressing is not suitable. In these situations Chrome III (trivalent) chrome compounds are used.  These compounds (when used correctly) are permanently fixed in the leather.

Basically Bush is committed to maintaining a high awareness of its responsibilities with regard to fate in the environment of waste discharge.  Sue says they also work to ensure their products are of a high standard, meet their customers’ requirements and international standards.

The company continues to explore options of reducing waste, for example, all reject skins and manufacturing off-cuts are used in other areas of the business.