Long popular as American rustic, cowhide rugs have regained popularity as a mid century icon the world over. Seen everywhere from Austin Powers’ 60’s shag-pad to the marble salons of Parisian apartments, hide is tough, unique to the animal, and has lassoed Big Country pioneer spirit back to the great indoors.
Hide is judged and priced on its sheen, colour, pattern and suppleness, and is offered in a handsome herd of familiar and more exotic breed colours.
Quality does vary. Sources include Irish cattle and sheepskin from Northwestern Wool & Hides in Sligo (www.northwesternwoolhide.com) to companies marketing Asian and South American hides in prized rare colours through London’s West End galleries, and increasingly online.
Look for a grade ‘A’ skin from a known supplier and if it’s on Ebay, zoom in on photographs of the actual skin, not just a studio shot of best heifer in show. Being a natural product, any flaws, holes, scarring or staining should be detailed in the pictures.
Dung staining to the quarters is a hair raising reality with cheaper pale legged pieces. There may be a no quibble returns policy, but the hide of an adult animal is heavy and you’ll be saddled with rounding up the steer and chasing it back to the supplier and paying postage too.
QUALITY AND ACREAGE
A good hide is a tactile work of nature, and you should be driven by deep animal instinct to touch it. The rug should not smell or be unduly stiff or bristly and the hair should stay on with reasonable use.
Sizes range from a small calfskins around 85cm by 110cm to an extra, extra-large measured across the widest parts of the animal, which at 200cm long will cover up to 6-7 square metres of floor with its rangy irregular edge.
Choose something that fills no more than three-quarters of the available space to give the rug’s character room to roam. You can have a single colour in a pale or dark skin or opt for a spotted or tricolour hide. With their muted natural colouring these rugs do tend to fit in just about everywhere from a period-styled, Victorian library to a flash, Italian-modern flat gleaming edge to edge in chrome.
The discreet matt of the fur will not interfere with the shine of taut bare leather.
Avoid battering your cow skin with the beater bars of the vacuum and instead take it out and beat it gently with the hairs pointing down to release dust.
You’ll need two people to lift a standard sized rug. If you must, use the brush attachment on the hose and groom with the hair direction. A steam cleaner can also be safely used on cowhide.
Obviously a darker skin will be more forgiving of staining, but will bald more obviously under the pressure of, say, rolling wheeled furniture.
A mild soapy detergent will lift out most spills if worked with the hair and not scrubbed into the skin and even heavy watery accidents won’t unduly hackle the sensitivities of a properly cured hide.
RUDOLPH HITS THE FLOOR
If you fancy something plusher with tonal dorsal markings, a reindeer hide is exquisite to the toes at 60mm of achingly soft fur and great value at around €150 for a 100-110cm example from a UK online supplier.
Reindeer is not as robust as cow hide, moults if overheated and is irresistible to pets, so be prepared to give it a bit more attention through careful placement, regularly shaking your rug out, and immediate re-homing of the cat (only joking).
A patchwork cowhide rug offers a wide array of coat colours and in a modern setting is decidedly less folksy. IKEA who have taken the cowhide to the high street, include woven Kornum cowhide rugs from €250 in two shade choices.
It’s also possible to buy pale cowskins printed over to resemble zebra, tiger, leopard and other questionable exotic pelts — a bit Great White Hunter in my book.
Nick Winters offers very convincing examples in glorious French hides from €440 for a 5 square metre rug.
TOO CLOSE TO THE SKIN?
Most cowhide is tanned using a chromium-based ‘wet’ process to make it soft and pliable. If you have misgivings about the potential pollution of chemical treatment, it’s the most common approach in the manufacture of leather for shoes, handbags and all those familiar leather goods.
Kept out of the surrounding water table, it’s relatively easy to contain in terms of toxicity for the wider environment.
The use of hide displays a full, responsible recycling of an animal slaughtered for meat rather than something small and furry butchered for fashion alone.
Still, the sight of a small hide rug taken from a younger animal would be too confronting for even this bloody-lipped meat eater.
Stretch the rug onto an oversized frame attached to the hide edges and mount on the wall as a feature. A full hide is very heavy, and you’ll need two muscled friends with suitable wall anchors for the job.
* Use a hide hung as a headboard either suspended or covering a padded frame. Vacuum regularly as the hair can become dusty.
* Throw smaller hides such as reindeer over the back of a meaty sofa.
* Cover furniture with fur as in the iconic Le Corbusier recliner. This will require an upholsterer familiar with working with leather. Nick Winters supplies ‘sides’ for upholstery using Irish and French skins from €85, www.nickwinters.com.
* Use a hide outside on a clean patio for summer parties. Only use a flat coated hide such as cow for these adventures as this is hard on the rug.
* For a subtle addition, match the main colour patches or spots in the rug to wood flooring or use a full white on a pitch dark plank (work in the making but tres elegante).
* To make the rug roar, a monochromatic scheme in black and white or a tricolour will generate a stampede of attention.
*Try a glass-topped coffee/dining table to show the rug off in all its glory.
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