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Types of Leather Tanning

Tannery Picture

At Walnut Leather, all our items are crafted from premium vegetable-tanned leather. But what exactly is vegetable tanning? (and no, it doesn’t involve carrots). What do you gain from leather made with this traditional method?

Here we have a quick overview of the two main types of tanning – chrome tanning and vegetable tanning – and how they impact the leather you purchase.

But firstly, why does leather need to be tanned?

Tanning has been preserving animal skins for thousands of years. The use of tannins (acidic chemical compounds) retains the flexibility of the protein within the skin, whilst preventing decay. This produces leather that is pliant, durable and ready for use.

Nowadays, there are two main methods of tanning.

Chrome tanning:

This is the most common method of tanning. 80%-90% of the world’s leather is ‘chrome-tanned’. It is quick, cheap, and chemical-based. The animal hides are soaked in a solution containing metal chromium, producing leather in under two days.

The resulting leather is water and heat resistant, thin and soft to the touch, and it can hold coloured dyes without fading. With its speed and adaptability, this method is designed to produce leather on a mass manufacturing scale.

However, chrome tanning has a serious environmental impact. It relies on heavy use of acids and other chemicals, producing toxic wastewater which can seep into the groundwater and contaminate drinking water supplies. The effect on the environment, and on tannery workers, can be very severe. This is particularly the case in countries where manufacturing costs are low, but restrictions and safety codes may not be enforced.

Vegetable tanning:

Vegetable tanning is a traditional method which produces high quality leather – without using any dangerous chemicals and with a fraction of the environmental impact.

Skins are soaked in natural tannins (found in tree bark and leaves). This is a much slower process than chrome tanning – it requires several soaks and can take 30 days to several months. The final leather also requires a bit more breaking in, as it is stiffer and firmer.

The results, however, are worth the patience. Vegetable-tanned leather generally has a longer life and can withstand constant, heavy use. Thicker than chrome leather, it can take details such as debossing, burnishing and carving. It is breathable and mouldable, with a colour and scent that is naturally occurring from the tannins used.

When you purchase an item made with vegetable-tanned leather, you are supporting a more traditional, artisan and environmentally-friendly form of production. But there are even more benefits over time.

All our leather items enhance as they age, as vegetable-tanned leather develops a patina. This could be the oils of your skin, darkening and shining the leather every time you reach for your wallet, or the gentle creases that form around your favourite belt notch. The leather holds the memory of its use, whilst remaining as durable as ever.

As a result, our wallets and belts become very personal over time and meaningful to pass on. With this type of premium leather and our durable saddle-stitched thread, we can offer an heirloom guarantee on every item that we make. So you can buy once, and trust you’ve bought well.

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