Wednesday, September 3, 2014

What’s the Difference Between Chrome- and Vegetable-Tanned Leather?

Most people love the rich, earthy smell of leather – every time I do a show, almost everyone who comes into the booth starts with "I love the smell of leather!" But what most people don’t know is that many leather products creating that alluring aroma are chrome-tanned. Unless you’re an avid reader of the Moxie & Oliver blog, you might not know what that means for your health.

Both tanning processes give unprocessed hides the color, texture, and suppleness we expect from finished leather, but the materials and techniques used to accomplish this result are different. To enlighten a little bit further, I’d like to explain the key difference between chrome-tanned leather and vegetable-tanned leather

Elements used in the vegetable tanning solution are completely natural – such as chestnut tree bark. Vegetable tanned leather typically comes from the tannery undyed and is a light flesh color.  This is what allows me to add color and pattern to it (using water based and safe paint and dyes).

On the other hand, chrome-tanning solution is mixed from various chemicals, acids and salts. One of the primary ingredients of chrome-tanned leather solution is chromium sulphate. This chemical helps to prep the leather to accept dyes (these are also typically artificial). The color that you see in chromium tanned leather - and this is the standard leather for almost all garments and accessories - is added in the factory. It may contain lead, and sometimes it's sprayed on with spray paint, a notoriously eco-unfriendly substance. 

The vegetable tanning process has been used for thousands of years and takes up to 60 days to complete for a single piece of dyed leather. Chrome-tanning was invented in the 1800s and these hides are done in about a day. The invention of chrome-tanning allowed leather handbags, shoes, and other goods to be mass-manufactured, but it yields an inferior product. As any leatherworker will tell you; vegetable tanned leather is the finest you can buy.

Okay, I'll say it - I'm a control freak, at least when it comes to my leather. As mentioned above, chromium tanned leather is soaked in huge vats of chemicals, softened artificially, and colors are added to the leather in the tannery. This means that when the leather reaches the artist or consumer, the color the tannery added is the last color it will be. No adding colors, no adding patterns... you get what you get. Veg-tanned leather, on the other hand, comes as a light fleshy color. No color has been added, so the artist/craftsperson gets to control the colors, and add pattern (which has long been the signature of my work). Because the veg-tanned leather is closer to the leather's natural state, the colors and patterns are permanent.

I often have customers ask if my leather is "buttery soft" as though a mark of a high-quality leather is thinness and softness, when in fact, the opposite is true. Vegetable tanned leather has a smooth surface but it's far from what anyone would consider "buttery soft". The softening takes time, and you have to break it in, but it will last for a lifetime of use. And, it won't give you or your kids lead poisoning (like some chrome-tanned leathers will).  Now, isn't that the mark of a high quality product?


No comments: