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From my own experience of attempting some very basic tanning processes, I realised that to create the kind of quality, durable, beautiful, individual items we desire, requires skill, and time and the highest grade materials.
Mass production may be quicker, and produce more uniformity, but also produces more waste, and often requires toxic chemicals to achieve a result which loses any element of the individuality which I would want to celebrate.
Natural materials do not behave in a uniform way, because each animal hide has a different character. With this in mind, I started to explore the different tanning processes. I discovered more about traditional tanning techniques that use vegetable tannins over chemical alternatives: oak bark over chromium sulphates.
I now use vegetable tanned leather as much as possible. It is much slower to produce than its chemical counterpart – so only accounts for around 15% of leather produced globally.
Thankfully there are still a few tanneries specialising in this in the UK such as J & FJ Baker in Devon, and most is still produced in small tanneries in Tuscany, Italy.
The consortium of vegetable tanned leather tanneries gives a stamp of quality to this traditional and more sustainable production of leather and is made up of a core group of artisan leather producers, dedicated to producing the finest quality leather. The result is exceptionally high quality material that is slowly produced with comparatively low environmental impact – and it is unrivalled in its intrinsic beauty.
Vegetable tanned leather tends to enhance the natural characteristics of the material. These variables can be better incorporated by a maker than by a machine. Traditional saddlery skills and timeless craft techniques require the maker to consider these different variables and adapt accordingly, in the process making items that are both unique and long lasting.
There is much more research needed to improve sustainable production of leather –originally a waste material from the food industry – but being aware of where and how leather is produced is a good place to start. Knowing the provenance of our raw materials means we, as makers, can offer the consumer, a meaningful alternative to the mass produced.