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Tannery – Exploring the Magic of Where Leather is Made

After working with many different types of leather, some good, others bad, I learned there was more than just leather types. Tanneries play a large role in the final quality of leather. As I began exploring various companies, I found much more consistency with the leather quality I used for crafting.

Tanneries are places where animal hides are turned into leather. Every tannery has its unique process for treating leather. As a result, two tanneries can take the same hide and produce wildly different leather. Well-known tanneries typically make the highest quality leather.

Let us look at the role tanneries play in the leather-making process and discover why some tanneries produce better leather than others.

What Is a Tannery?

A tannery is a place, or company, that turns animal hides into usable leather. Tanneries will clean, tan, dye, coat, and split leather, which will then be shipped to vendors to sell. Each tannery has its unique quality guidelines and tanning methods.

These differences significantly impact the final product, as well-known tanneries will strive to produce the highest quality leather. Additionally, tanneries pick the type of animal hides they work with and the types of leather they make. 

What We’ll Explore

  • Clearing up Myths & Misconceptions
  • History of Tanneries
  • Tannery Overview Table
  • Tannery Locations
  • My Personal Research on a Tannery
  • Helpful Tannery Insights
  • Key Takeaways
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Leather Processing in a Tannery

Clearing Up Myths & Misconceptions

A common misconception about tanneries is they are often thought of in terms of “best.” Those outside of leather craft will hear buzzwords describing a tannery and assume it is the best leather available. While tanneries that are a staple in production will essentially produce high-quality leather, they may not be the best for specific leather types.

Each tannery will have its flagship leather that should not be overlooked when making a purchase. For example, a tannery known for harness leather used for saddles may not be the best choice when making a more delicate item, such as a purse.

History of Tanneries

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While archaic methods for tanning hides have been used since 7000 BC, the first tanneries were developed around 9,000 years ago. Tanneries at this time completed every step, from washing to preserving, by hand. It was only until the industrial revolution that the industry began to see change.

With new machinery, more chemical understanding, and the introduction of chromium tanning, more companies were being created to produce leather. This boom has since ceased, with most production now outsourced globally. However, the remaining tanneries further honed their craft and made iconic leathers we all love.

Tannery Overview Table

CharacteristicDetails
Vegetable Tanned LeatherVegetable tanned leather is typically produced by “heritage” tanneries that focus on using traditional tree bark methods for tanning. U.S. tanneries such as Wickett & Craig make this leather their sole focus.
Chromium Tanned LeatherSince chromium tanned leather can negatively affect the environment, most tanneries are located overseas, where environmental restrictions are not as prevalent. Cheaper labor also drives tanneries overseas to places like China and India.
Oil Tanned LeatherOil tanned leather is similar to chromium tanned and uses similar production methods. As a result, most tanneries that produce oil tanned leathers will be overseas. However, U.S. tannery S.B. Foot is famous for its oil tanned leather and is one of the few exceptions.
Exotic LeathersMost exotic leathers can not be tanned using vegetable tanning methods. In addition, their niche qualities require specialty tanneries to produce these leathers. Most exotic leathers will be tanned overseas. Shell Cordovan, however, is also made in the U.S. by the Horween tannery. 
Leather Tannery Characteristics

Tannery Locations

What Is a Tannery in Morocco?

Morocco is home to three tanneries, the largest and most famous being the Chouara Tannery. Its fame is brought on by being considered the oldest tannery in the world. The Chouara Tannery still produces leather using both traditional methods and chemical mixtures.

This tannery is a hotspot for tourists who can view the process during guided tours. However, as the tanning process takes days, if not weeks, it is impossible to watch the complete leather processing.

Where Is the Largest Tannery in the World?

While it is often stated that the Chouara Tannery in Fez, Morocco is the largest tannery in the world at ½ an acre, it is dwarfed by various tanneries worldwide. The Horween Leather Company Tannery is nearly 5 acres, and the Wickett & Craig Tannery is 16 acres. With places in India devoting over 1,100 acres to various tanneries, it is difficult to tell where the largest tannery is. 

Where Is the Oldest Tannery in the world?

The Chouara Tannery in Fez, Morocco, is the oldest tannery in the world. While it is unknown when the tannery was first created, it is estimated to be over 900 years old. Similar to its age, the methods used to produce the leather remain traditional.

Workers complete various steps by hand, from cleaning to the dyeing of leather, requiring intense hours of repetitive work to make a single hide. These working conditions can be dangerous, with many receiving chemical burns as they tan the leather by hand.

Insider Business provides an in-depth look at the Chouara Tannery in this insightful video, interviewing workers on the methods they still use today.

Are There Any Tanneries in the United States?

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, approximately 111 tanneries operate within the country. Popular leathers such as Horween, Herman Oak, S.B. Foot, and Wickett & Craig all produce and finish leather around the country. In the same document, the United States Environmental Protection Agency stated these tanneries are the minority.

As environmental regulations, synthetic leathers, and imports increase, tanneries in the U.S. opt to only partially tan leather. In addition, these changes have pushed some tanneries to shut their doors or move their operation overseas. 

Every tannery has its unique process for treating leather. As a result, two tanneries can take the same hide and produce wildly different leather.

My Personal Research on a Tannery

As a leather crafter, I encounter many people who ask the same question, “What is the best leather?” While there are many ways to answer it, I find the information they’re looking for is about tanneries. Most will have watched a video or read an article about famous leather companies.

For example, Horween, Wickett & Craig, S.B. Foot, and Herman Oak are some of the most common leathers I get questions about, and for a good reason. So for research, I decided to dive into these American companies and what makes them special. 

Horween

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Horween leather is perhaps the most popular. Their chromexcel leather combines the best of vegetable tanned leather and chromium tanned leather, while their shell cordovan is world-famous. These leathers are a small part of the Horween legacy, spanning over 100 years. One big highlight of Horween is their partnership with Wilson to create football leather.

This leather has been in production for 70 years and has appeared on footballs used in the NFL. Horween uses a proprietary embossing stamp to create this legendary leather. Their shell cordovan has been used in the top-line Allen Edmonds for over 90 years. This leather comes from horse rump and is one of Horween’s most sought-after leathers.

Due to its delicacy during production, only a few members of the Horween team work with it. Their age-old process of tanning the leather results in shiny, smooth, and luxurious leather. With a limited supply of horse rump and high consumer demands, shell cordovan remains one of the most expensive leathers. 

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A Leather Wilson Football

Wickett & Craig

While Wickett & Craig is seen as an American tannery, the company began in Toronto, Canada, in 1867. Unfortunately, the company was forced to move in 1989 due to the upcoming winter Olympics. Canada thought they would be hosting and cleared much of the downtown industrial area. Wickett & Craig found an old factory in Pennsylvania where they have remained.

This was not the only hardship the company faced as its parent company, Tanbridge, went bankrupt in 2004. Luckily Wickett & Craig was sold to their supplier, Bank Bros. This interesting dynamic allows the tannery to receive leathers they want to work with, allowing for the highest quality. Wickett & Craig leather has stood out as one of the best vegetable tanned leathers.

They focus on the tradition of leather making, limiting their color palette, but creating beautiful browns. With their goal of keeping leather natural, companies with similar goals have partnered with the tannery. Nick’s Boots, a handmade boot supplier, now uses their vegetable tanned leather.

This is a new direction for Wickett & Craig as the tannery becomes a more luxury-focused industry, adapting through informing rather than producing lower-quality leather. Wickett & Craig focuses solely on vegetable tanned leather that will develop a beautiful patina over time and believes its quality will carry them through a diminishing market. 

S.B. Foot

The tannery S.B. Foot is known for its leather use in footwear. The tannery produces hardwearing oil-tanned leathers that focus on work boots. The tannery was founded in 1872 and was initially known for producing leather for the boots soldiers wore throughout WWⅠ. After their partnership with the U.S. military ended, the tannery began working with Red Wing Shoe Company.

It was then in 1986 that Red Wing purchased the tannery, using it to produce their popular boots. Today Red Wing manages the tannery and carefully controls the quality of the leather. Red Wing boots remain highly popular and touted as quality shoes. While manufacturing plays a significant role, the S.B. Foot’s oil tanned leather helps keep these shoes looking good for decades.

Conclusion

One thing I found in common with tanneries in the U.S. is their passion for the leather they make. All of the companies I researched valued leather and the quality they put out. The tanneries understand that most of their competition is overseas, using cheap and quicker methods for producing leather. Despite this, they continue to carve their path in the industry, finding a place for those who genuinely appreciate the leather quality they make.

Helpful Tannery Insights

What are tanneries?

Tanneries are the buildings in which animal hides are processed into leather. Workers and tanning machines, vats, drums, and splitters come together to take raw hides and turn them into leather. Tanneries will clean, tan, and dye the hide to create the fabric we love, used by varying industries. 

How does a tannery work?

A tannery starts by cleaning animal hides they received, removing the dirt and salt used to preserve them during transport. The hair is then removed from the leather, and the flesh side has the fibers cut down to ensure a smooth finish. Hides are then placed in drums or vats with chemical mixtures that preserve and tan the leather. 

What does a tannery smell like?

Walking into a tannery, those unfamiliar will be immediately put off by the poor smell due to the potentially rotting hides that have not been treated properly to the harsh chemicals used by some tanneries. These odors combine, creating a foul scent. Tanneries using dated methods will also use animal urine in the tanning process, causing a bad smell. 

What is the synonym of tannery?

The synonym for tannery is tanhouse. This name comes from the combination of the verb tan, to make skin darker from exposure to the sun, and the noun house, a building where people meet for a particular activity. In the past, tanning hides required the use of the sun as they were left to dry out. 

What is tannery leather?

Tannery leather is just a name for leather that comes from a tannery. While some companies will sell hides of their leathers in small batches, many will opt for a retail store. When buying from a retail setting, it is important to know where your hide comes from, as various brands will be sold at the same location. 

What is tannery row leather?

The Tannery Row is a distributor whose goal is to provide small amounts of high-quality, luxury leather to crafters. Founded in 2011, the company carefully curates their selection and works directly with tanneries to provide hides for smaller leather workers. This allows crafters to work with the best leathers without committing to larger orders.

What is a tannery leather cleaner?

Tannery leather cleaner is a leather conditioning product that cleans the interior of cars and other large goods. Despite what the name suggests, it is not something used in tanneries but rather by the consumers of leather products. 

Key Takeaways

  1. Tanneries are where animal hides are turned into leather fabric.
  2. Each tannery will focus on specific leather types to produce the highest quality leather.
  3. To purchase consistently high-quality leathers, find the tannery where it was produced.

In Closing

Tanneries are a vital part of the leather industry. They take what was once considered waste and turn it into a luxury material that is universally enjoyed. Tanneries that have become a staple to many crafters have provided high-quality leather for decades and continue to prove why they are essential to the industry today. 

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