Are you vegan? Do you want to know the most environmentally-conscious way for leather to be tanned? What is vegetable tanned leather? Are they making leather from vegetables now? Has political correctness gone mad?
All this and more today as we explore the process of tanning leather with vegetables tannins, hopefully quelling some of your misconceptions along the way.
What is Vegetable Tanned Leather?
The process of turning animal hides into leather is usually referred to as tanning. One of the main methods by which to do this is through vegetable tanning. In fact, around 10% of all leather produced today will come about through the vegetable tanning process.
For argument's sake, an alternative method of tanning exists which produces chrome-tanned leather. In this process, chromium sulfate takes the place of the vegetable tannins to prevent decay and rot in the animal hide. The environmental impact of such a process is quite gargantuan considering how popular leather products are.
The process specifically involves using natural vegetable tannins to alter the protein structure of a given piece of hide which in turn causes it to become leather. Through the tanning process, the tannins serve three major functions to preserve, strengthen, and give color to a piece of hide.
Wine aficionados amongst you will be rejoicing at the mere mention of tannins as tanning agents, for this is precisely the chemical that influences the distinct taste of each bottle of wine, as found in the grapes therein.
Tannins are also found in other fruits, plants, and seeds in varying concentrations and will be obvious when looking for a sharp taste of some sort. When it comes to veg-tanned leather, however, tree bark, leaves, and roots are favored due to their exceptionally high concentration of tannin.
A number of tree species boast a higher tannin concentration than others, including birch, catechu, chestnut, mimosa, oak, and willow trees, just to name a few.
Vegetable leather is a decidedly vegan leather that, besides using raw animal skin, seeks to make the process as environmentally friendly as possible. To produce leather does not necessarily mean you need to produce destruction too.
The History of Vegetable Tanned Leather Production
Seeing as leather is one of the oldest materials that we still use and wear regularly today, it should be no wonder that it has a long and storied history behind it. The story of vegetable leather eschewing synthetic materials is one that is inherently tied up with the history of human development.
Some 5000 years ago in Sumer (modern-day Iraq and Kuwait), one of four main prehistoric tanning techniques were believed to have occurred regularly. This is of significance to our own investigations today, for the hides were soaked in water filled with mimosa bark and leaves. The leather produced was then used to create primitive clothing to keep themselves warm and to provide camouflage for hunting, not to mention creating bags for carrying around their possession and spoils.
This process was continued, with the Ancient Egyptians and Babylonians continuing to make advances in the field of vegetable-tanned leather. It was, however, the Romans that first regulated the industry properly. In doing so, they permitted Tuscan craftsmen in the empire to perfect their art of manufacturing leather sandals.
Even up to this day, the region is intrinsically tied to this history, retaining a rich and bountiful socio-cultural heritage - to the point that it is still referred to as the leather heartland of Italy. This can make for a rather expensive leather!
Even if a leather manufacturer is not from any of these places, they are still engaging in a tradition that goes back many thousands of years. Indeed, they will be basking in its rich cultural heritage every time they fire up the kettle and soak their hides in a bunch of tree bark and leaves.
Among other environmental reasons is precisely why the vegetable tanning process is still so highly coveted today.
Speak of the process and it shall appear - here we shall cover it in detail so you do not have to.
First, the hides are cured with salt to prevent the growth of bacteria - these are, after all, parts of a dead animal, so it stands to reason that bacteria and other pests will be wanting to get busy with it.
Then comes the process of liming, involving the removal of hair and fat residues. Again, this was once part of a living being, so you are going to have to remove those parts that were signs of that by soaking the hide in the milk of lime.
Once this part of the process is done with, the hide must be de-limed. The lime will have set the hide's pH level out of balance, and so the hide must be met with a chemical solution that bears a contrary pH level to balance it out once more.
Now, we are met with the actual tanning process. Over the course of between 30 and 60 days, the hides are regularly and repeatedly moved into different drums filled with tanning solutions in varying concentrations. In this instance, it will be filled with solutions of vegetable tannin. Can leather get wet? Yes, it can.
Once this part of the process is done, the hides are then removed from the drums and dried out over a period of a few days, or until the hides are fully dry. This might take longer than anticipated.
Finally, the leather is treated to get it looking nice and ready to be made into something else. This involves oiling, stretching, trimming, and measuring the leather up to snuff. The exact process of this part of the story will depend on what precisely the leather is intended to be used for.
So, there you have it! Hopefully, you are feeling a little more knowledgeable about what it means to tan leather and what it means to do so with vegetable tannins. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to drop them down below.
FAQs Vegetable Tanned Leather
IS VEGETABLE TANNED LEATHER REAL LEATHER?
Indeed it is. In fact, this process is one of the oldest known methods for the manufacture of leather, so it is about as real as you can get. In an age of veganism and vegetarianism, the sound of vegetable tanned leather might conjure up an image of leather made from vegetables. However, the vegetables are only involved in the tanning process.
IS VEGETABLE TANNED LEATHER HIGH QUALITY?
Indeed it is - some might even say it is of the highest quality. Tanning leather with vegetable tannins is one of the oldest ways to tan leather and is still one of the most commonly used methods today (with around 10% of all leather being produced in this way). Another method, for example, is to use chromium sulfate instead, a substance which attempts to rid the hide of decay and rot. Besides not producing as organic a product, this chemical and its byproducts also have grave environmental impacts. Hence why even today, people still gravitate toward vegetable tanning processes.
WHAT IS VEGETABLE TANNED LEATHER MADE OF?
It can be very easy to feel as though vegetable tanned leather is leather made from vegetables. In the current age of environmental concern, this would not be such a bad idea and it wouldn't be surprising if such a thing did not entirely come about in the next decade or two. However, this is far from being the case. Vegetable tanned leather is made from animal hide just like any other leather. The vegetable part is involved in the tanning of the hide, something that comes after the sourcing of the hide and the preparing of it to be tanned in the first place.
WHY IS VEGETABLE TANNED LEATHER SO EXPENSIVE?
This is an ancient process by which to tan leather. Not only is there millennia of history behind it, but it also takes a long time to actually perform as well. Excluding the parts of the process that come before and after, the tanning itself can take anywhere from 30 to 60 days to perform properly. During this time, the hide will be kept in drums of water infused with varying concentrations of vegetable tannin. This is a very involved process for manufacturers, hence why the eventual product of these efforts tends to fetch a higher sum.