Picking up after the first partof this history of leathercraft from last week, after the Industrial Revolution and the introduction of chromium tanning for leather, the vegetable tanning method almost disappeared.
For a brief time, William Morris and John Ruskin’s 1860s Arts & Crafts Movement revived the craft industry in England and the rest of Europe, and this revival included a few leathercrafters as well. This movement spread a couple of decades later to the United States, but sadly died out after the start of the Great War (World War I).
Leather was in short supply during the war, but afterward it became introduced in therapeutic leatherwork programs in military hospitals, recreation centers, and rehabilitation centers. Because of its unique ability to be tooled, carved, branded, painted and dyed, vegetable tanned leather could offer veterans a healing way to work with their hands and create a beautiful and useful leather item such as a wallet – with minimal tools or training.
A Texas entrepreneur named Charles David Tandy helped to revive non-therapeutic leathercraft by putting it in the hands of home hobbyists. While in the service, Charles Tandy saw the therapeutic leathercraft programs in Hawai’i and thought that introducing leathercraft tools and kits to the consumer could help revive his father’s dwindling leather business (he had started in shoe findings). Nog long after, Tandy began making home-hobby leather kits, quickly evolving into the Tandy Leather that we are familiar with today.
From that first kit offering, Tandy steadily grew their catalog. The kits were inexpensive, easy to complete, and offered the opportunity for anyone to create their own “handicraft.” They introduced many people to leathercraft who would not have had the opportunity otherwise. Tandy Leather kits were where I got my start in leathercraft, since formal learning is very limited in this field.
Most leather items today are chromium tanned, made overseas in India or China and imported. Many chrome tanned pieces contain lead or other toxic materials. Vegetable tanning, however, remains the gold-standard in tanning. It produces superior leather that is safer and frankly, more interesting, than the chrome tanned counterparts.
Vegetable tanned leather, however, isn’t the best for mass manufacture. Only the small crafters, people like you and me, still use vegetable tanned leather. But I don’t want to end on such a sad note, more a call and a hope: there’s a beauty, wonder and history in this material. Let’s share our knowledge, our experience, and our art. I am – and I hope you will, too.