The History of Vegetable Tanning As soon as humankind began to stand upright and travel long distances there was a need for materials to offer housing, bodily protection and transportation. Hides and skins were the only sizeable sheet materials available to help meet these needs.
Hides could be used raw but were not flexible and were liable to putrefaction if they became humid. So some form of treatment to prevent bacteria being able to eat them away was required. This the definition of tanning.
Four methods were discovered by the ancients:
Smoke and brains
All of these were known in ancient Sumeria and Egypt. In Ancient Greece and Rome it was vegetable tanning and alum that were used and the others became quite marginal. However alum could be washed out of the leather so vegetable tanning predominated.
For the next two thousand years vegetable tanning was vital in nearly every aspect of society, transportation, warfare and industry. At the end of the 19th century a chemical tanning process began to take over as it was faster to produce and more suited to lighter substance leathers for the uppers of shoes and garments. Vegetable tanning declined with the reduction in horse based transport and the changeover from shoes soled with leather to those using rubber and plastics.
In the 21st century the use of vegetable tanning has started to expand once again, based on a consumer demand for the exceptional qualities of vegetable leather, such as the surface aesthetics, a patina that grows more beautiful over time and vegetable tanned leather’s longevity in use. Designers tell us they like vegetable tanned leathers for its adaptability and versatility.
Vegetable tanned leathers are made using tannins from bark, wood, leaves and other parts of trees. We think the process was originally discovered by hides being left in the brown forest pools full of tanning from dropped twigs and leaves from surrounding trees.
The tanning is extracted just as tea is from tea leaves and given time (a very long time), tea will tan a piece of hide. The tanning material TEPF sells to tanners comes from sustainable forests around the world and offer tanners a wide range of tannins to achieve a wide variety of looks, colours and performance characteristics.