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What is Vegetable Tanning for Leather?

Hi, it’s me, Mimi. I’m here now to tell you that I’m starting a blog. I’m starting a blog because I have many things to talk about. Making and selling the products I do is very fulfilling and self-actualising, but there’s a myriad of topics surrounding the industry that I’d love to dig into and put together a few paragraphs about.

I plan to discuss aspects of what I do, how I do it, the materials I buy and how they’re produced, the techniques used to make what I make and a lot more I’m very sure.

In this article, I’ll be covering what might be considered my bread and butter, vegetable tanned leather.


Old vegetable tanning


Vegetable tanning leather is an old process that goes back thousands of years, with the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Romans and who knows who else all bringing the method further toward its pinnacle one step at a time.

It’s still used to create leather today because it remains a highly effective technique, with around 10% of all leather produced being vegetable tanned. It’s much less harmful to the environment than a lot of modern tanning methods, and it has a distinct appearance that’s very sought after.


Hanging leather hides


So what is tanning, and where do the carrots and cabbages come in? Tanning is the process of turning animal hides into leather. This is usually all done in a place called a tannery. The whole operation, and everything involved that has the word ‘tan’ in it, gets its name from tannin, a chemical commonly found in particular tree barks. That, in turn, gets its name from ‘tannare’, which is latin for ‘to convert into leather’.

When an animal has been slaughtered for its meat, its hide is immediately salted to preserve it, otherwise it would just go into landfill and be wasted. Then, it’s hung to dry in a building known as a beam house for about 12 weeks, and subsequently submerged in lime; a natural alkali solution that removes the hair and grease from the surface through a process called ‘dissolution’. It makes the skin swell, and also prepares the collagen within to a condition that is better for tanning.

The hides are then delimed with acid, which counteracts the alkalinity of the skins and shrinks them from their previously inflated state. Depending on how rigid the leather wants to be, they may be bated, which involves adding enzymes to soften the leather.

Pickling follows, meaning  that they’re dipped in a mixture of salt and acid. The salt prevents adverse effects from the acid, and the acid allows the collagen to be penetrated much more effectively in the next stage which is… Tanning!

With the tanin that these tree barks, leaves and roots give us, we’re able to dehydrate the skin even further to the point of achieving that smooth and supple composition we’re so familiar with seeing. It does this by altering the protein structure of the prepped hide. 


vegetable tanning drum


Over a period of 2-3 months the hides are kept in drums with these natural tanning agents in them. Then, they are moved to other drums that contain progressively higher increments of these natural tannins. This achieves a stronger, perfectly preserved piece of leather that has colour and vibrancy to it. Then after that, it’s commonly dyed, but it’s also sometimes left to retain its natural appearance.

Since most-all of the natural fat has gone from the leather, it’s waxed or oiled to maintain an allowance for flexibility, sans cracking.

Interestingly enough, peat has been used in the past to tan leather. It comes from a particular moss, and performs amazingly well as a preservative. Since it is so commonly found in bogs, that’s where a lot of this work was done. The other conditions present in these wetlands, like high acidity, low temperature and low oxygen content, make it great for turning prepped hide into leather.

Because vegetable tanning is very time consuming, a lot of leather is tanned with alternative methods that prove to be harmful to organic life.

Wet white tanning is an alternative method of using less-organic chemicals for tanning leather. It does produce less toxic waste than chromium, but any toxic waste is too much.


chromium tanning facility in India


Chromium tanning can be very detrimental to the natural environment. In Bangladesh around 2014, up to 25% of the nation’s chickens contained harmful levels of hexavalent chromium, which contributed to a growing health problem in the country. Not to mention it’s corrosive and can, and often does, cause permanent skin damage to people that work with it.

If the negative environmental and humanitarian impact from modern forms of tanning are not reason enough for you to start looking into vegetable tanned leather, there’s a few more things that might change your mind.

One of them is that veg tanned leather is stronger. It’s renowned for how robust it can be, as vegetable tanning allows for the production of thicker leather.

Also, it ages much better than chromium tanned leather, and develops a rich patina, resulting in some very elegant ageing.


Leather patina

Caring for your leather products is very easy and a lot of it is common sense. 

  • Keep them out of the sun when you can.
  • Avoid contact with sharp objects so you don’t scratch the leather. If you do, these scratches can often be buffed out with a soft cloth and the help of some natural leather conditioner.
  • If it gets wet, let it dry naturally, never blow dry it and do your best to keep it away from heat sources.
  • If it’s looking particularly dry, you can use some leather wax to revive it and add some waterproofing, which certainly helps if it’s regularly in contact with English weather.

So yeah. Vegetable tanned leather is really just the more environmentally friendly, more people friendly, longer lasting, better feeling and more complete version of all the popular methods of present-day tanning.

I personally use it in my products for these reasons, and I’m much happier with the idea of providing someone with a leather product that has absolute quality in mind as well as in its final physical composition.