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Vegetable Tanned Leather - Ancient techniques vs modern chemicals

October 29, 2018

Vegetable Tanned Leather - Ancient techniques vs modern chemicals

 

Leather is beautiful. It's a natural product that has been used since man first made pointy stuff to poke things with. It has properties of insulation, durability and flexibility as well as beauty and character.

But it comes from a once living creature and it starts out as skin with meat stuck to it. So how do we get from one state to another? We tan the animal skin, or hide, and turn it into leather.

Maybe is started this way...

Some millions of years ago Korg jabbed an antelope with a sharp stick and the idea struck him that the skin of the poor creature might make a cool blanket for his missus. So he peeled it off, chewed off as many of the chunks as he could and then lugged it home.

One week later Korg was kicked out of the cave by his wife and family because he refused to part with his putrefying fly infested meat sleeve. Later that day he was swallowed by a mammoth.

When man first started using animal clothes for his own purposes he inevitably realised that, as an organic substance, skin can easily break down and deteriorate if it isn't properly taken care of. So early man started experimenting with ways to add other substances to the leather to prolong it's useful life. Thus came the process of tanning.

What is Tanning?

Tanning is the process of changing the state of an animal skin or hide to become leather. 

What is Veg Tanned Leather?

Veg is short for Vegetable Tanned. And it's probably worth pointing out what Veg Tanned Leather is not before I explain what it is.

It is not Chrome and Aldehyde Tanning. These two types of tanning are modern processes that produce fast and reliable results using chemicals that studies have shown to be harmful to people and the environment. Nevertheless these processes are the two most widely used techniques in the world today and are responsible for making over 80% of the worlds leather products. They are fast and they are cheap and that saving is passed down to you, the consumer. So congratulations!

Veg Tanned leather, on the other hand, is neither cheap nor fast. The term Vegetable Tanning is derivative of the plant elements used in the process of preparing the leather. It is the tannins, predominantly from tree barks, that the name tanning is derived from.

Tannins are a naturally occurring astringent (meaning it tightens pores and draws liquids out) molecule found in nearly all plants. Tannins applied to the hide bind to the proteins inside the skin and make them less water-soluble and more resistant to bacterial attack. The process also causes the leather to become more flexible.

Leather is created by bathing hides in varying baths of tannins over a period of time; sometimes weeks. It is then baled while wet for more weeks before being dried and prepared for working. The process is more complicated than this but the important thing here is that veg tanned leathers are not exposed to copious amounts of dangerous chemicals used in  Chrome and Aldehyde Tanning.

The resulting leather is a natural pale yellow colour (in varying degrees towards red depending on the tanning process). It's generally a thicker more stiffer leather than most people are used to seeing. But it's the first choice of traditional leather workers and saddlers because it's generally tougher and can be coloured by hand to whatever is required by the job at hand.

Why do I use Veg Tanned Leather?

Veg tanned leathers are not cheap. They take longer to make and are therefore a more expensive option. But studies have shown that not only is it better for the environment, it also lasts longer. Jack Stillman bags utilise as many traditional and natural materials as possible so I was not content to use a chemically altered leather in the process. Each piece of leather is cut, coloured, finished and placed by hand. Each piece is intended to last the lifetime of the bag and the bag is built for a lifetime of service to you.




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