goat-sheep (caprinae skins)
- Skins from animals in the Caprinae subfamily to which goat and sheep both belong. The goat is an animal with a coat of coarse hair that leaves clearly defined hair follicles in the skin, grouped in three in waving lines across the skin, usually in combination with a rich, deep grain. The best quality skins have a dense network of fibres in the epidermis, which, in combination with stable organic tanning agents such a sumac, produced skins of great beauty with outstanding durability. The best skins were imported (hence the names they were given in Europe – maroquin, turkey leather and today niger – named after the countries they came from. The sheep is a closely related animal which, depending on the proportion of coarse hairs and fine wool hairs in the skin will look more or less like goatskin, and if there is a very high proportion of coarse hair (hairsheep), the skin is, to the eye, more or less indistinguishable from goatskin. This confusion was compounded in the early eighteenth century when Edward Harley, Earl of Oxford, unable to obtain sufficient quantities of high-quality turkey leather (tanned goatskin) for his enormous library, began to import a bright red skin directly from Morocco made from the skins of hairsheep. Because of where it came from, it was called ‘morocco leather’, which means that English and French morocco leather came from different animals – with vastly different levels of durability, to which the deterioriated condition of many of Lord Harley’s morocco-covered books will testify. While the true, high-quality tanned goatskins are usually readily identifiable, the difficulty in distinguishing hairsheep from poorer quality goatskin, especially when made into parchment, means that it may be best to describe these skins as caprinae, knowing that the skin lies somewhere within this spectrum of the animal kingdom, but without having to be too specific. The many bindings covered in brown, tanned sheepskin found on cheap editions such as schoolbooks in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries have clearly visible hair follicles, and are clearly not goatskin, but the brightly coloured skins of hairsheep have often been mistaken for goatskin. If it is not possible to identify the animal precisely, it is better to hedge your bets.
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