Leather is one of the oldest, most durable material known to man. A quick googles search will tell you that man has been preserving animal hides and using them for shoes, clothing, and shelter since at least 400 BC. The idea of nose to tail animal use isn’t new! Let’s take a look at the different types of tanning and why one just might be superior to the others.
Over all, you’ll hear of three types of tanning: oil tan, chrome tan, and vegetable tan. Of course, each of those have subheadings but we won’t get into those today.
Oil tanning is a bit of a misnomer. In reality, it’s a chemical tan that is “retanned” to add oils back into the hide. They result is lovely and unique. The resulting leather is durable and soft, but kind of oily. Unfortunately, any sort of chemical tanning processes is hard on the environment, using harsh chemicals that both leach out into the environment and stay in the leather to possibly be absorbed by the user. I’ve even encountered some oil tanned leather that just feel gross on my hands.
Chrome tanning leather is one of the most common forms of chemical tanning leather. It sometimes has a shiny surface that might crack when it’s bent or used. We’ve all had those purchases where we thought we were getting amazing leather and ended up with cracks or flakes! It’s always so disappointing!
Chrome tanning leather is shockingly quick – sometimes taking only one day! For this reason, it’s a common choice for cheaper applications that want to tell the buyer the item is real leather. The process uses enormous amounts of water, as well as chromium salts. Both of these points are hard on the environment. Chromium salts from the tanning practice are harsh and harmful to the workers, the soil surrounding the tannery, and possibly even the end user of the leather product.
The process of chrome tanning leather is highly automated, eliminating the old world skills, knowledge, and care that have been tanning leather of millennia. Of course, the loss of old world skills always make me weep. There’s a special magic to using a material that is almost identical to what was used thousands of years ago. What a beautiful connection of souls over time and place!
And this brings us to the beautiful art of vegetable tanning. The respect of tradition and environment, humans and animals that goes into vegetable tanning leather is artful. Admittedly, the process requires copies amounts of water. After that, all of the materials are naturally occurring and plant based. The cleaned hide is “steeped” in a sort of tea of barks and other plant based materials such as hemlock and mimosa.
It takes many month, sometimes up to six months or a year, to take a hide from fresh to ready to go. After it’s tea bath, the hide is wrung and stretch and hung. It’s the hot stuffed with a mixture of oils, lanolin, and beeswax to make it soft and supple.
But perhaps the true beauty of vegetable tanned leather happens after it leaves the tannery. Even after it leaves the studio of the leather worker whose hands and love turn it into something unique and useful. The real magic happens with the handbag or belt or wallet or shoes are taken home by its new owner. When it’s carried and used and loved, it gains an unmistakable and totally unique patina. Your story, your life, is written into your individual leather piece and that beauty is unsurpassable.
That’s the unique loveliness of vegetable tanned leather.