The Leather Tanning Process and the Trait of Patience

Leather tanning and leatherworking are some of the oldest professions known to man, but acquiring leather has not always been as easy as going to weaverleathersupply.com and having it delivered to your doorstep in several days. Back in the old days, tanning leather required backbreaking work and lots of patience because the process took up to 18 months from start to finish. Come with me as we step back in time and learn about leather tanning in years past.

In medieval times, a tanner would buy hides from the butchers. The first step was to trim the hides of all the unusable parts including the head, hooves and belly area. Next he would wash the hide to remove all blood, dirt and dung that remained on the skin. The hide was then soaked in a solution of lime or urine to help remove the hair and any fat remaining on the hide. After the lime treatment, the hide would have a knife taken to it to scrape off the loosened hair.

By this point the hide is fairly clean, but a new problem has arisen due to the chemicals impregnated in the hide. The first problem is the pH level is out of whack and needs to be returned to neutral, and the second problem is the hide is stiff and needs to be softened. To cure both of these problems, the hide is rewashed and then soaked in either dog or bird dung or it is soaked in stale barley or rye beer.

After being washed again, the hide is now ready for the actual tanning process. Here the hide is hung in a pit with a tannin solution that consists of mostly oak tree bark and water. This is where the patience part is needed because the hide will hang here for over 12 months before it is ready for the last few steps needed to get the leather to the perfect temper and consistency to be utilized for clothing, shoes or harnesses. After a year has gone by — that is, if plague or war hasn’t taken the life of the tanner — the hides are removed from the pits and smoothed using a two-handled setting pin. They are then dried before being sent to a currier for stretching. Lastly, because no one likes stiff leather for clothing articles, the leather is softened by having grease or sometimes animal brains worked into the leather.  Disgusting, maybe, but also effective.

With the technology we have today, we are able to tan leather much faster and more efficiently than was possible a millennium ago, but patience still applies. It takes 30-45 days to vegetable tan leather. Hides must go through the six-step process of preservation, rewetting, dehairing, tanning, drying and roll pressing. To consistently achieve the same quality in each type of leather, the tanneries we work with check and recheck the tanning solutions and processes to ensure they are accurate and precise. This is a good example of actively waiting. If this is not performed, it will lead to issues at the end of the process when the leather is not the color or temper that it was supposed to be. Be sure to check out more about our tannery partners at www.weaverleathersupply.com/learn/leather-101/our-tannery-partners.

When we practice patience in our everyday lives, we nurture good relationships and improve our overall outlook on life. The full definition of patience is “actively waiting without frustration.” I’ll leave you with one more bit of wisdom from our fearless leader, Paul: Willingness to wait and tolerate delays + foregoing gratification for long term results = patience.  – Marcus Miller

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