Here at Lost Little One we’re super passionate about using only vegetable tanned leather. But what does that even mean, and how are other leather-goods made?
Let’s travel back in time. Humans have been using animal skins for as long as we can remember - we know, for example, that tanning was happening in Pakistan possibly up to 9000 years ago.
Leather is tanned animal skin, a natural and flexible material prized for its many uses, including in footwear, car seats, clothing, bags, furniture… the list goes on. Leather has a reputation for luxury and durability, and it’s produced in a huge range of styles. Animal hides are organic, and if left untreated will putrefy and harden. The process of tanning halts this decay using the magic of science. It permanently alters the molecular structure of the protein collagen, increasing its durability and preventing decomposition.
The original method of tanning leather is vegetable tanning, which has been the primary method in Morocco for over 800 years. This process is performed in tanneries by leather artisans using tannins from bark and leaves. First, the skin is cured, usually with salt, to prevent collagen breakdown. It’s then soaked to remove the salt and increase moisture. Then the hide is limed to remove fat, grease, and hair. Chemical unhairing follows (often by soaking in urine), and then a manual unhairing process called scudding. To soften the hide, it undergoes a process called bating. Historically, this meant either pounding pigeon or dog dung into it. The final step is pickling with salts to lower the hide’s pH. Only natural ingredients are used, like tree bark and plant extract, resulting in rich natural browns. The whole process can take anywhere from six weeks to three months. This is slow, slow fashion.
Leather tanning is, as you can probably guess, pretty noxious. Tanneries are historically located at the outskirts of town to isolate the odour from residents. This is still true in Marrakech’s Medina, with the tanneries located on the eastern edge. Vegetable tanning is an ancient tradition, and most artisans are very skilled craftsmen working in tanneries with a rich heritage.
Vegetable tanning is environmentally friendlier as it produces no chemical waste, which means it’s biodegradable in the right conditions. Due to the natural tannins, vegetable tanned leather ages very well. It changes and softens, forming a patina. This method of tanning is associated with tradition and craft, but in reality very few tanneries have the capability to produce vegetable tanned leather.
So what are the negatives of vegetable tanning? Due to the time and skill required to produce it, it’s a relatively expensive material. And there’s more aftercare involved - because it’s organic, leather can stain easily and is vulnerable to water. But with proper care, vegetable tanned leather can last for years and years, gaining character and improving with age.
How else is tanning achieved? In 1858 we discovered chrome tanning, using chromium sulfate and other chromium salts to do the same job but much, much quicker. This method takes about one day to complete, making it ideal for large-scale mass production. First, the hides are soaked in acidic salts to fit the chrome molecules precisely between the collagen molecules, then the hides are returned to a normal pH.
Chrome tanning replaces humans with machines, and organic materials with the toxic heavy metal chromium. The resulting leather can contain 4-5% chromium. The end product is a shrink-resistant, unnatural-feeling, chemical-infused leather. It’s completely water-resistant and, for the most part, stain-resistant. Because of the molecular consistency, which is more precise than vegetable tanned leathers, the material starts soft and stays soft, and it’s available in a rainbow of colours. Sounds great? Not so. Thanks to all the nasties used, this bad boy has a lifespan of infinity. Although it originated as an organic substance, it’s no longer in that category and can’t be recycled. The price is quite low because of the quick and easy production; chrome tanning is part of and enables the plague of fast fashion.
Marrakech has an ancient atmosphere of tradition and craft, and this is what drew me to Morocco. Walking into the tannery felt like walking into the long forgotten past. Lost Little One is focused on sustainability, preserving tradition, empowering people, and slow fashion, always. We refuse to take the easy route at the expense of heritage, humans and the earth. The more I’ve learned about the art of vegetable tanning and the caretakers of this venerable trade, the more amazed and enthralled I’ve become. I’m humbled to be a small part of this world.