What is Shagreen?

And why should you care? Well, it was everywhere during the Regency, and the word actually referred to more than one material, each of which could be put to a different purpose, though all were somewhat similar in appearance. The uses for shagreen ranged from carpentry to scientific instruments to high fashion.

Those living in the Regency would have known the difference, and I thought perhaps those of us who like to slip back to that decade through novels set during that time would like to share that knowledge. To avoid chagrin, or perhaps, to embrace it?

Shagreen, shaggreen, chagreen, and shagrin were all variations for the word in use in England, though by the Regency, shagreen was the most common. The French called it chagrin, as did some in England who thought the French version just a touch more elegant. The one thing all types of shagreen had in common was a somewhat rough, pitted or granular surface texture. However, the materials which supported that surface texture were quite different in origin, ranging from ass or camel hide, to fish skin, to silk.

Rawhide Shagreen

This type of shagreen was made in Turkey and other areas of the Middle East, as well as in parts of Asiatic Russia. It is made from the hides of horses, asses and camels. Though made from animal hides, shagreen is not leather, because it is never tanned. Leather is made when animal hides are treated with tannin and other chemicals. Shagreen is produced without the use of these chemicals and thus is categorized as rawhide. This is an important distinction, as it impacted how shagreen was manipulated by the craftsmen who applied it to a range of items.

Only the hide from the hindquarters of the animal was used for making shagreen. The Turkish word for "rump" is "sagri" and it is believed this is the source of the word shagreen. The fresh hides were soaked in water for several days and the hair was then scrapped off. The hides were soaked again in water, after which, they were scraped clean and brought to an even thickness with the use of a special knife. While still wet, each hide was stretched on a frame, which was then laid on the floor, flesh side down. The still moist and pliant hides were then strewn with the smooth, hard seeds of the goose-foot plant, chenopodium. In some cases, mustard seeds were substituted for the goose-foot seeds. A felt was then laid over each seed-strewn hide and the seeds were forced into the soft, moist hides by the weight of people treading upon them, or in a press.

The frames containing the hides, with the seeds still embedded in them, were then leaned to dry in a place out of the sun. After a few days, when the hides were dry, they were removed from the frames, and the seeds could be shaken off, leaving a very hard, horny membrane with a deeply pitted surface. Each hard hide was then laid upon a block padded with wool and carefully shaved down so that the depressions created by the seeds was made slight and even. Again the hides were soaked, first in water, then in a warm, weak solution of lye. The hides were then removed from the lye solution and piled one on top of the other while still warm and moist. In this way, the hides regained their natural elasticity but retained the shallow pattern of the seeds which had been pressed into them. When dry, the hides were rinsed clean with salt water and were then ready for dying.

Perhaps in keeping with its name, the most common and popular color for shagreen during the Regency was green. This color was achieved by treating the flesh side of the hide with a concentrated solution of sal-ammoniac then strewing copper filings across the surface. The hide was folded in half, the treated sides together and placed under a heavy weight for at least twenty-four hours. The sal-ammoniac would dissolve enough of the copper to give the hide a beautiful deep sea-green color.

Shagreen was also dyed in other colors. Blue was created by soaking the hide in a solution of indigo dissolved in water and soda, with the addition of lime and honey. The black dye was made of the same materials as writing ink, "nutalls" or oak galls and copperas. White shagreen was made by dressing the hides first with a solution of alum and then with wheat paste, rinsed away with a weak solution of alum. Finally, the hide would be washed in very hot water and lightly scraped with a knife to achieve a pure white surface. Red shagreen could only be made by dying hides which had been whitened by this process. Cochineal, which was used to dye the hide red, would not yield a clean, pure red if it was used on a hide which still retained its natural color.

Because shagreen was rawhide, it would soften when soaked in water. It could then be easily cut by a craftsman for application to the case he was covering. He would have to take into consideration the shrinkage of the material as it dried when he cut out the necessary pieces. But the advantage of shagreen was that once it was wrapped around the wood or metal base of the case, as it dried, it would shrink tightly around it, where it would become extremely hard and durable.

Shagreen’s great durability was favoured in England from the seventeenth century. It was particularly popular at that time for watch cases, book bindings and sword scabbards. By the Regency it was also used to cover cases for mathematical and scientific instruments, pocket mirrors, spectacles, needles, nécessaires, etuis, scent bottles and tea caddies. Shagreen was also used to cover jewel, buckle and razor cases and cases for cutlery, especially knives. Most of these cases were lined with silk, though velvet was also popular, particularly in the finer cases. In rare instances, fur was used to line some specialty cases.

Fish Skin Shagreen

A material very like rawhide shagreen is made from the skins of some species of rays and sharks. The skin of these creatures has a rough, hard surface, resulting from many close-set horny projections of calcified papillae which cover them in lieu of scales. These skins were stretched upon frames when fresh and allowed to dry. The dried skins were then laid out on a table and scraped to remove the majority of the height of the papillae. The surface was then smoothed and the skin was ready for dying. Fish skin shagreen was dyed with the same dyes and in the same colors as rawhide shagreen.

Fish skin shagreen was used for most of the same purposes as rawhide shagreen, the covering of small cases, such as those for spectacles, scissors, drawing and surgical instruments. However, fish skin shagreen was never as smooth as rawhide shagreen and it was also applied to the barrels of telescopes and microscopes as its rougher texture provided a better grip. For the same reason, fish skin shagreen was also used to cover the handles of swords and knives, where a good grip could be crucial.

Some of the fish skins with the roughest surfaces were left untreated, simply dried and shipped to market. These untreated skins were sold to carpenters and cabinet-makers, who valued these skins for smoothing and polishing purposes, using them much as we would use sandpaper today. There were cabinet-makers who did purchase some treated and dyed fish skin shagreen, which they inlaid into the surfaces of their furniture. This practice was more common in France than in England, but there were a few English cabinet-makers who used finished shagreen in their furniture designs.

Shagreen Silk

When the adjective shagreen was applied to silk, it was used to describe a type of weave or surface treatment of the cloth. Shagreen silk in the eighteenth century had a grained or pebbled texture, similar to fish skin shagreen. It has been described as a kind of taffeta with a rough surface. Initially, shagreen silk was sturdy but inexpensive, and was most commonly used for lining garments. But its status had come up in the world by the time of the Regency. In an 1819 issue of La Belle Assemblée was found the following recommendation for January fashions:


… For young ladies, a beautiful pink shagreen gros-de-Naples, lightly ornamented with feathered silk, forms a very attractive carriage dress for morning visits of ceremony. …

Should the heroine of the Regency novel you are reading throw down her copy of La Belle Assemblée and dash off to Bond Street to have a carriage dress made up in pink shagreen, now you will know a little about the fashionable fabric her modiste is using. You will also know that she might be carrying a nécessaire or pocket mirror in a shagreen case in her reticule. And the hero might possess a pocket telescope with a shagreen covering or a set of cartographic or drawing instruments in a shagreen case which he uses in his clandestine reconnaissance work for the Crown.

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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13 Responses to What is Shagreen?

  1. George Arak says:

    This is an excellent exposition. Thank you. Do you know if fish skin shagreen is still fashioned by Asian crafts folk?

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thank you very much! I am glad you found the article useful.

      I do not know if fish skin shagreen is still in use anywhere today, even by Asian crafts folk. The most recent book I consulted on the subject was published in the 1970s, at which time the author suggested it was still in use. But that was nearly forty years ago, and sadly, as the world shrinks with wider-reaching communication, many of these old techniques fall out of use when cheap modern materials are available. But it is possible that there are still a few pockets of craftsmen and women who are unwilling to give up their traditional tools and do still use fish skin shagreen. But I have no idea who you could contact to get that information. Sorry! :-(

      Regards,

      Kat

      • Alex Lamont says:

        Hi Kathryn,
        Your article is very interesting. I have a workshop in Bangkok producing articles with shagreen. I think some of the information you describe comes from the Cooper book. In my 14 years working with shagreen I have focused on using the natural tones but we do also dye the skins. I use stingray skins which are the most recogniseable material in the shagreen family. There are in fact many people producing shagreen but the dyeing processes you describe are unlikely to work as the fish skins become very brittle and weak after contact with water. You can do it but you have to be careful and not repeat the soaking or the skin will fall apart. Anyway, if you would like to discuss more please contact me. Best Alex Lamont

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          I used a great many books while researching this article, though none of them were authored by anyone named Cooper, so I am unfamiliar with that reference.

          With regard to the dyeing of fish skin shagreen, records of the details of how that was done during the early nineteenth century in England are sketchy. However, there are enough references to objects made of, or covered with, fish skin shagreen that it is clear fish skin shagreen was used successfully at that time.

          Regards,

          Kat

  2. Linda Fern says:

    I’ve just come back from a craft fair where I saw some beautiful silver jewellery made with ray skin shagreen.

  3. Pingback: What is Shagreen? | The Beau Monde

  4. Ramon says:

    Thanks for this very informative article. I really appreciate the detail in describing how this material is made. It seems like I can remember some old microscopes and telescopes with either shagreen or a similar material on the focus piece.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am glad you liked the article. More than likely, those old telescopes and microscopes did have either a real or faux shagreen covering. It was very popular for use on scientific instruments, even into the early years of the twentieth century.

      Thanks for stopping by.

      Regards,

      Kat

  5. Jan de Kretser says:

    Dear Kathryn,
    There I was, sticking back the piece of shagreen covering on the outside of a metal cigarette case which has been in our family as long as I can remember and I began to wonder if my memory of being told that it was sharkskin were correct. On consulting my very fragile 1910 edition of Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary, I was surprised to find it used to be made from horse or ass hide. So on to the internet. What a joy to find your site, with such a comprehensive coverage of the topic. Thank you for all your research. Whether from animal or fish it is an interesting piece to have. My dictionary entry says that Astrachan (sic) was a source for the product as well as various parts of the Levant (not a word we hear anymore).
    Jan de K

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am glad you found the post useful!

      Your dictionary is quite right, Astrachan was an important center for the production of ass and horse hide shagreen for centuries, as were other areas throughout the Levant. It is a pity those old words have fallen out of use. They conjure the most wonderfully romantic and exotic images of places and times which are lost to us.

      Thank you for taking the time to comment.

      Regards,

      Kat

  6. Alex Lamont says:

    Kat, do you know what was the oldest recorded use/mention of shagreen?

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      The first use of the term in England, according to the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary, was in 1677. However, it is generally assumed that a word can be in use in the vernacular for up to fifty years before it makes its way into print, so shagreen could have been in common usage prior to 1677. There are no references for other languages to match the OED, so it is very possible that a comparable word was in use in other countries even earlier.

      Regards,

      Kat

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