This article duo is inspired by a chapter from my book, LeatherCrafted: A Simple Guide to Creating Unconventional Leather Goods. Enjoy!
For many of us the art of working with, and of tanning leather is a beautiful mystery. While not terribly complex, it is a process that has been developed, perfected, and implemented by hardworking humans and craftspeople over thousands of years.
As far back as 20,000 BC, humans used leather – at least as clothing – as we know from cave pictographs. We cannot be sure if they knew how to tan or treat it back then, because references to tanning are not seen until 8,000 BC. The earliest tanners would scrape the hair off of the hide before treating it with brains or urine for preservation and softness. Because of their early efforts, we actually have leather artifacts that date from 4,000 BC. The oldest leather shoe dates to about 3,500 BC.
The tanning process remained relatively the same for several thousand years. Different civilizations would use different substances – such as brains, dung from dogs and pigeons, urine, salt, alkaline lime, and fat. In the ancient town of Pompeii, we know they gathered urine for tanning and bleaching from public urinals – the ruins from the town (covered by the volcano Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD) offer a peek at one of the world’s oldest tanneries.
Vegetable Tanning, which is the process we use in crafting Moxie & Oliver products, was discovered around 2,000 BC. It was also known as bark tanning, since it preserves the leather with tree bark tannins. Although the result was a lovely, smooth and durable leather that was ideal for tooling and embellishments, the process takes upwards of a month from start to finish.
During the Middle Ages crafters began adding decorations and embellishments, and tooling the material by pounding a stamp into the leather to create a relief pattern. The Moors were known for beautifully tooled leather saddles, which made their way to the New World in the mid-1500s with Hernando Cortez and the Conquistadors.
For those in Europe and in the colonies leather was a necessary material for every-day life. Shoes, horse gear, accessories, books, blacksmithing equipment and even coaches required leather. Vegetable tanning was brought to the colonies and the first tanneries were set up – the crafts involving tanning and use of leather flourished until the industrial revolution.
In the early 1800s the Industrial Revolution dramatically changed the way people both made and consumed goods. With advances in machinery all goods, leather included, could be made more quickly and at a lower price. They could be manufactured – and consumers could, and did purchase a higher quantity of goods, even though they were at a lower quality than their handmade predecessors.
Around this same time “chromium tanning” was invented in the medical community. This invention, or discovery, changed the leathercraft community irreversibly. This new process created a leather that was soft, supple, stretchy, and perfectly suited for mass-manufacture.
However, it was toxic both in process and waste, and the resulting material could not be tooled, painted, sculpted, branded, or carved as vegetable-tanned leather could.
Time for a short break to let you process this information this far, feed your kids, and maybe grab a glass of wine. I will resume this brief history of leathercraft in just a couple of days!