- Vegetable tanned leather can cost up to three times as much as modern chrome tanned leather.
- Tuscan artisans keep the tradition alive, which is believed to have started in 6000 BCE.
- Vegetable tanned leather is known for its durability and rich patina that develops over time.
Here is a transcript of the video.
Narrator: It is said to be the oldest leather-making tradition in the world. It’s called vegetable tanning, and it’s a process that has been perfected over generations here in Tuscany. Craftsmen spend four to six weeks perfecting each piece they touch. Vegetable tanned leather is considered to be of higher quality and will outlast synthetically treated leather. It takes at least 28 times longer to manufacture, which is part of the reason why vegetable-tanned leather only makes up about 10% of all leather available today. It can also cost around three times as much as the cheaper version. So how exactly is vegetable tanned leather made? And why is it so expensive?
Vegetable tanning is said to date from around 6000 BCE, when people living in early civilizations were looking for a way to make animal skins resistant to weathering and decay. Genuine vegetable-tanned leather uses these natural tanning agents from sources such as quebracho, chestnut or mimosa. The substances, known as tannins, will naturally bind to collagen proteins in a skin, turning it into leather as we know it. Just as they do with trees, tannins protect the skins made into leather from bacteria and other substances, giving leather the longevity and versatility for which it is known. Until the 19th century, vegetable tanning was the only way to make leather.
But today, 90% of all leather goods are made using chrome or mineral tanning, a leather-making process that uses synthetic tannins. At first glance, consumers may think that this softer leather is of better quality, but it will not last the same. When the skins arrive at the tannery, they are soaked in water for 24 hours to remove the salt that has retained them during their journey.
Narrator: Then they are shaved and limed, a process that prepares the skins for the tanning substances. Leatherworkers add the skins, along with the tannins, to this large rotating wooden vessel known as the drum. The skins stay here for three to seven weeks to tan. This is where you can start to see the differences between vegetable tanned leather and its modern alternative, chrome tanning, where the hides lie in a drum with water and synthetic extracts for a single day. This difference in production time alone adds to the price of vegetable tanned leather.
Once the skins are removed from the drums, skilled artisans inspect each piece. Depending on the final product, the leather can be retanned, dyed or greased. This process is known as fatliquoring. These three procedures can be performed to adjust the elasticity, softness or color of the leather. Whether they happen depends on the craftsman’s vision. Narrator: The tanned hides dry on hooks for several days in a special environment-controlled room. The humidity and temperature of the room must be perfect. It is something that cannot be learned quickly and which shows the know-how of these leatherworkers. The time of year, weather, and humidity in the plant itself can all play a role in adjusting to that perfect temperature. If a skin is too dry, it must be returned to the drums and reconditioned. You can distinguish vegetable tanned leather from mineral tanned leather by its two defining qualities. First of all, it changes color in the light and develops a rich patina. A patina is the shine that develops over time on a leather product that makes it unique. Second, vegetable tanned leather will become softer with age. These qualities are made possible by the natural properties of leather.
Vegetable tanning leaves the skins in an organic state which allows them to age like skin. With synthetically treated leather, each piece is the same. It’s by design. Leather produced with vegetable tanning will, however, obtain the most beautiful patina as it is worn or used. No two pieces age the same. Once dry, the hide goes through a stitching machine, where small hammers repeatedly hammer the leather to make it softer. Sometimes the leather is ground for several hours in a dry drum, which gives it a special natural grain. Ultimately, leather is cut, measured and packaged. Finished products are appreciated for their variations, which can add to the price. Craftsmen take pride in the natural marks and the differences that prove the authenticity of leather.
Narrator: All vegetable tanned leather from Tuscany must meet a specific set of standards for the consortium to verify its authenticity. Tanneries must use all-natural raw materials and ensure that no animals are killed for their skin. And ultimately, the most important mission of vegetable tanneries in Tuscany is to keep cultural craftsmanship alive, no matter the cost.