Vegetable Tanned Leather Goods: Chipping Away at The Price of Convenience
Ask us about vegetable tanned leather goods, and we'll tell you just how amazing they are. In fact, we've got three reasons why you should choose leather goods made with this natural process that is a world away from the price of convenience imposed by other chemical processes that promise fast and cheaper goods. Let's start with a bit of historical background on the vegetable tanning process.
Vegetable tanning is an ancient art. The process dates back to 6,000 BC which makes it the oldest, traditional method of tanning animal hides to make leather. Aptly named, tanners use the tannins from natural bark or plant tissues for an organic tanning process. Tannins are astringent and bind to proteins and other organic compounds to prevent natural decomposition processes in animal hides.
Examples of the types of bark used are oak, chestnut or mimosa but those are just the most common. Hundreds of other trees and plant life can take part in the process.
In the mid-1900's, tanners began to use minerals like chromium sulfate to create a faster method of tanning hides, known as chrome tanning or chromexcel. Just like vegetable tanning, the chromium sulfate cross-links with the collagen in the hide to prevent decomposition. Large rotating drums wash the hides with the chromium sulfate mixture. The entire process can take one day. Today, chrome tanning provides 80% of the tanned leather used worldwide.
The chromium process is lower cost and faster than vegetable tanning but the chemical slurry leftovers have a harsh effect on the environment. The chemical tanning process often kills the people who make the leather. Cheap labor and few environmental safety regulations make Southeast Asia (China, India, Bangladesh) the go-to places for making leather goods for western customers . Tanners often dump the solid and liquid waste from the chromium process directly on the earth or in water supplies. Chromium is the most popular leather tanning method today -- although some areas make Aldehyde-tanned leather which uses glutaraldehyde or oxazolidine. Large wastewater dumping can damage fish gills, causes cancer in many animals, respiratory problems for humans as well as congenital disabilities, infection, and infertility. The manufacture of leather is a dangerous business -- being boiled alive or buried in line are typical hazards of the trade -- but handling the chromium itself is one of the worst dangers. Besides breathing in the fine dust which causes cancer and respiratory issues, chromium damages the skin, resulting in ulcers that do not heal, known to workers as "chrome holes."
Vegetable Tanning Process
This is a much slower process than chrome tanning. Before the hides go to a tannery, workers must remove the hair and fat as quickly as possible. If they do not do this, the fats and oils may become rancid, a natural part of decomposition but one that can discolor and otherwise ruin the final piece of leather. To avoid that result, tanners wash the hides in salt and soap baths to remove as much of the fatty oils as possible.
Vegetable tanning is a highly skilled craft that depends on highly skilled craftsmen. The craftsman immerses hides in baths of tannin concentrate over several months. The tanning process varies from tannery to tannery with some of the tanneries taking up to a year to produce the final leather product. The process treats the craftsmen better than the chemical process.
The thick, heavy leather it produces forms long-wearing saddles, shoe soles, and belts. Such leather is, of course, biodegradable.
What is different about vegetable tanned leather. For one thing, it smells wonderfully sweet, earthy and natural. The leather colors are also natural, earthy browns which get softer and develop a rich patina with use and age. If you look closely, you will see pores in the leather attesting to its history as animal skin. You won't see that in any of the man-made leathers. The vegetable tanned leather feels soft even though it's incredibly strong and thick and often gets softer with age.
The stitching on vegetable tanned leather is often done by hand with linen thread for smaller items like wallets, cases, and cardholders, providing more jobs for the community's residents. Shoes and belts are usually machine sewn because the leather is so thick.
 Fortunately, there has been EPA and other regulations being imposed: https://www.bna.com/china-pollution-inspections-n57982088091.
Photo by William Montout