The Vegetable Tanning Chronicles
When you find yourself needing a large bolt of fabric to make a shawl or a coat, you visit a fabric shop and have a veritable smorgasbord of colours, patterns and finishes to choose from; but our ancestors weren’t so lucky. When “primitive” man found himself in need of a large piece of fabric from which to fashion clothes, containers and the like he really only had the one option: a hide.
Man soon learnt that hides were prone to putrefaction and decay and began to develop methods of treating the hides to delay or prevent decomposition. A previously discussed method of leather treatment, here on Freedom of Movement, is the method of brain tanning. When brain tanning as a treatment was improved upon by the ancient Greeks and ancient Romans, the tale of favour for vegetable tanning methods commences.
For two thousand years the vegetable tanning process reigned favourite among ancient Roman’s and ancient Greek’s alike, with vegetable tanned leathers at the forefront of practically every industry from transportation and clothing to warfare!
Vegetable tanned leathers suffered a brief hiatus from the limelight in the twilight hours of the 19th century, when a chemical tanning process became favoured as the cheaper alternative. Chemical tanning also allowed for the treatment of lighter-use leathers (thinner leathers), such as those used for shoe uppers, and fast-paced production. Following this era, the demand for substantial, quality leathers decreased even further as the horse-drawn mode of transportation began to die out, and shoes began to be made with rubber and plastic soles.
All is not lost! The dawn of the 21st century has seen the metaphorical phoenix rise from the ashes in the increased demand for vegetable tanned leathers. This increase in demand is due to vegetable tanned leathers’ unique and characteristic patina which develops over time and only adds to the leathers’ aesthetic value. Vegetable tanned leathers are also more substantial and thus enjoy greater longevity than chemically tanned leathers. Using natural products in the form of tannins, derived from the wood, leaves and bark of trees; vegetable tanning has once again become the most popular method of tanning superior quality leather for use in the manufacturing of clothing and upholstery.
Fun Fact: Due to the nature of tea, being a collection of plant leaves which are activated when boiled, if you left a hide in tea for long enough it would tan the hide.