In this article we will learn about the source and special properties of vegetable-tanned leather, how it is made, what kind of products it is used in, and how to care for this type of leather. We will also look at the advantages and disadvantages of vegetable tanned leather and discuss similar leathers. If you’re looking for an all purpose leather cleaner and conditioner, we recommend Chamberlain’s Leather Milk.
How is Vegetable-tanned Leather is Made?
The process starts when the animal is slaughtered at a slaughterhouse. The meat is taken away for processing, and the hides are quickly salted. If you don’t salt the hide and keep it moist, it will start to rot, and once it starts rotting, it is over. The rotting destroys the grain, which is arguably the most important part of leather. There is no way to reverse that kind of damage, and very little can be salvaged into good leather. When the preserved hides arrive at the tannery, they are placed in a beam-house. The beam-house is the storage facility for the green hides.
From there the hides are put in a liming pit, which is exactly what it sounds like. It is a pit, or in modern times a drum, full of lime, and we aren’t talking about the fruit. Lime is a very potent chemical, and burns the hair off the hides. In the old days, the tanneries were built on a river so they could dump the old used up lime into the river. Eventually the rivers were so full of lime, that the government shut down the majority of the tanneries in the United States.
Very few remain to this day. The rest of the tanning process is pretty straightforward. The hides are pickled, put in another drum of tannin(the tree bark extract) to be tanned, pressed, sorted, and dyed. If you want a more in depth view at the ins and outs of vegetable tanning, you can check out the video of a production process in Italy below.
Based on the craftsmanship and careful use of traditional techniques developed over centuries, the vegetable tanning process results in leather with a distinct appearance and unmatched durability. One of the best features of vegetable-tanned leather is that it develops a patina over time with prolonged use and exposure to the environment. Due to the gentle processes involving several weeks of treatment, the vegetable-tanned leather has a much longer life than chrome-tanned leather. It is breathable and products such as shoes made with it get more comfortable the longer you use them.
The process of vegetable tanning uses organic material and natural tannins derived from the barks, leaves and branches of trees and plants. This results in colors that are rich and deep in natural earthy tones such as browns, beiges, yellows and reds. The fibers of the animal hide used for the leather are visible in the finished product, lending an authenticity and personality to the leather that makes it more unique.
Vegetable-tanned leather also has a distinctively sweet, woody fragrance that is normally associated with leather. Each piece made with this leather has unique shades and nuances, which are a mark of genuineness. The lack of consistency in color and tone is not a defect. Instead, it’s a characteristic of natural tanning processes.
Products Vegetable-tanned Leather Is Commonly Used For
Products made from vegetable tanned leather include saddles, holsters, belts, wallets, bags, shoes and purses. Usually this kind of leather is stiff in the beginning but gets more supple with time and use. Vegetable-tanned leather is more expensive than chrome leather due to the longer manufacturing times and artisanal nature of the tanning process. It’s usually used for high-end products.
Advantages of Vegetable-tanned Leather
Vegetable tanning is perhaps the form of tanning that produces the sturdiest leather. This is the type of leather that is used for products like saddles or holsters. It makes it so it is a little less pliable, so it isn’t used for products that require a lot of give. For example, shoes are almost never made entirely out of veg tanned leather, though the tough soles may be. This type of leather is desired by those in the upholstery business because you can buy it as an entire hide.
Other types of leather, such as chrome tanned leather, are most commonly found in sides, which are only half the hide. Due to its sturdy nature, vegetable tanned leather is the only type of leather that is able to be imprinted with intricate tooling. This makes it a part of many products, such as chaps or purses, that are made primarily out of chrome leather, but have tooled inlays.
Disadvantages of Vegetable-tanned Leather
The disadvantages of the tanning method used for traditional vegetable tanning include the heavy use of water. At least the discharge is not harmful to the environment due to the organic materials used. The time taken to produce a batch of leather is around two months, as compared to one day for chrome leather. The cost of such leather is also high due to the specialized craftsmen required, the longer tanning period and less automation involved. However, this method also supports a rich tradition and is an important cultural legacy for many countries.
How to Care for Vegetable-tanned Leather
To keep this leather looking it best and to protect its appearance, it is important to treat it with care. Avoid letting your leather product get wet especially in the first month of use. After a month, the leather becomes more flexible and better at repelling water droplets. If you’re looking for an all purpose leather cleaner and conditioner, we recommend Chamberlain’s Leather Milk.
Keep the leather away from heat and never blow dry it, even if it gets wet. Use animal hair brushes for cleaning, not brushed made with synthetic bristles. Clean the product once a week if you use it often. Apply oil or cream conditioner directly onto the leather, working it into the grain with your fingers. You can occasionally wax your leather products to keep them in top condition.
Like vegetable tanned leather, chrome leather goes through the tanning process but using chemicals and acidic salts that require shorter periods to treat the animal hides. Chrome leather is softer and has more color options compared to vegetable leather. It does not have the distinctive sweet fragrance associated with vegetable-tanned leather.
Vegetable-tanned leather shows the natural fibers of the animal hide, but these are not visible in chrome leather. However chrome leather is cheaper and widely available due to the automated tanning process and suitability for all kinds of leather goods.
While vegetable leather is more expensive than chrome leather, its many desirable characteristics make is a great choice for the discerning leather buyer. It is more sustainable, of a higher quality and gets better with age. It provides great value for money due to its durability. It is also a fashion classic that never goes out of style.
Other Similar Leathers
- Brain tanned leather
- Chrome tanned leather