What is Natural Hide Tanning?
Softening animal skins for clothing is one of the oldest human skills on Earth which is thousands of years old. Hide tanning is the act of turning a raw animal hide into a preserved skin that can work as a textile (the fibres woven by the animals themselves) and used in many different ways. Through different methods, an animal skin can be permanently shapeshifted into leather, chamois/buckskin, and fur-on pelt. Besides being tanned, a skin can also be dried into rawhide, very useful for drums, tool kits, belts and other uses.
Natural hide tanning means we don’t use any chemicals to tan the skin, only natural oils and fats, smoke and tannins found in different barks and plants. Personally, I also don’t use machinery, preferring the use of simple hand tools made out of metal, bone, antler and wood. The skins I usually tan are either salvaged from road kills, diverted from landfills, or offered by people who wish to honour the animals that they took such good care of.
Contrary to industrial tanning based on chromium and other toxins, natural hide tanning is sustainable and respectful towards the animals, the land, the waters and the ancestors. The final product is a material that is incredibly versatile, local and biodegradable, that can last a lifetime if well taken care of.
Natural Hide Tanning Methods
There are many ways to naturally tan a hide. The two methods I use are commonly called Fat Tanning and Bark Tanning.
In the Fat Tanning method, brains, oils, eggs and smoke are used to tan a hide. This is a method that can be used to tan both hair-on and hair-off skins, which means we can create a variety of textiles with it. With a hair-on skin, we typically flesh, dress, soften and smoke the hide while keeping the hair intact, and the final result is a beautiful and soft pelt that can be used as a rug or to create clothing items, bags, shawls and more. If our aim is, for instance, to make buckskin – a super soft, breathable and supple material that is perfect to make clothing with -, then we need to add a few extra steps to the method, such as bucking (to remove the hair) and graining (to remove the top layer of the skin). Fat Tanning is probably the oldest tanning method that exists, practised by all our ancestors since the Stone Age. It is quite intense and a lot of work, but the final result is incredibly rewarding.
Bark Tanning Method
In the Bark Tanning Method, the hair can either be kept and the tannin solution rubbed on the membrane side; or removed and the skin submersed in tanning solution for weeks or even months, depending on its thickness and the desired final product. The bark or plant material used to make the solution must be rich in tannic acid, which is the natural component that tans the hide. Different kinds of bark can be used, such as Oak, Willow, Birch, Mimosa, Spruce and Eucalyptus, as well as leaves from shrubs such as Sumac and many others. When the skin is finally tanned all the way through, it is oiled and worked soft until completely dry. The end result is a stronger kind of leather, ideal for shoes, belts, coats, bags and much more. If tanned with the hair-on, we end up with wonderful fur-on rugs. It is also possible to make suede with this method by removing the grain leather and then proceeding with submerging the skin in the solution, which have some similarities with buckskin and are wonderful for clothing.
Why support small traditional tanneries instead of industrially chrome tanneries?
Most industrial leather is chrome tanned. This leather is usually very cheap and can be produced extremely fast since the process can be automated and finished very quickly. You can find it in most modern clothes, car seats, sofas and shoes. However, it comes with a high cost: pollution of water streams and health problems to the tanners, the local human populations and the other-than-human community (specially when the waste water is left untreated). Also, chrome tanned leathers cannot be recycled (unless the chrome is removed from the skin) and do not allow the skin to breathe as naturally tanned leathers do. Fortunately, there are still a few industrial tanneries that focus on bark tanning (such as in Portugal), and if you are looking for industrial leather, then for sure support those tanneries instead of the chromium based tanneries.
Nevertheless, if you’re looking for truly sustainable and high quality leather, look for small scale traditional tanneries that follow natural tanning methods. Those are the people who not only produce the most wonderful leather you will ever see, but also put a lot of effort in recovering, experimenting, practising and passing on these skills to others. Making leather with simple hand tools and natural ingredients is hard work, but it is an important skill to keep alive for future generations. Supporting a small scale tannery with good ethics means supporting both ethical leather production and the keeping of these ancestral skill alive.