What is Vegetable Tanned Leather?
The famous milk advertising campaigns told us that Happy Cows Come From California, but the term leather tanning has nothing to do with sunbathing cattle. Leather tanning is the process of taking an animal hide and treating it to create leather. Vegetable tanned leather is leather that is tanned using natural tannins from trees. The natural tannins used in vegetable tanning bind to protein structures in the hide, stabilize its fiber structure, and prevent decay. Leather can be tanned with natural tannins, or with chemicals, like chromium III and a slew of other toxic chemicals, instead of tree tannins.
Vegetable tanned leather is safe for the environment, leatherworkers, and you–– our clients. At Alta Andina, our leather is tanned using the naturally occuring tannins from quebracho and mimosa trees, both of which are native to the Andean region. The bark and pods from these trees are ground to create a powder of concentrated tannins. Our hides are placed in a wooden tumbler and mixed with the natural quebracho and mimosa tannins for several days, until they turn a beautiful beige color. What emerges is leather that has a nostalgic, earthy smell, a tough, durable feel, and will develop a beautiful patina, which are all hallmarks of vegetable tanned leather. Vegetable tanning does add a small amount of color to the leather, yet it is really more of a tint. Different tree tannins will produce slightly different shades of the beige leather. Chrome tanning, the industrial alternative to vegetable tanning, produces leather you’d have trouble recognizing as leather.
What Does Vegetable Tanned Leather Mean, and What is Leather Tanning Anyway?
Our Café leather hang drying after being dyed with natural anilines
Natural mimosa tannins used to make our vegetable tanned leather
After tanning, our leather is hung to dry, and our vegetable tanned hides look, well, like leather. When it dries, our leather is a beautiful beige color, free of dye, which we call our Natural color. To make our three other colors, we use aniline dyes that penetrate the hide, infusing the color into the leather so that it lasts a lifetime. Our Café (dark brown), Miel (Honey) & Noche (Black) colors all start with our Natural beige hides, and are placed back in the wooden tumbler to mix with the soluble dyes for several more days. This aniline dyeing process creates a rich color without masking the leather’s natural grain pattern. Once the color is dry, we finish the process by applying a mix of neatsfoot oil and beeswax. This natural blend creates a protective coating that is supple, yet strong. Our leather is never painted, so the color won’t peel or fade over time. In fact, the color of our leather will become richer and deeper as it ages. This natural softening and darkening of leather is called a patina, and develops over time from exposure to sunlight, oxygen, and the oils in your hands. Our natural tanning and finishing processes mean your product will look better as it ages.
Applying our natural blend of neatsfoot oil & beeswax
Our Miel (honey) leather after finishing
Alta Andina is proud to partner with Curtiembres del Valle (CDV), a family owned tannery that has specialized in the art of vegetable tanning for over 50 years. Curtiembres del Valle produces only vegetable tanned leather at their facility. Our leather produced by CDV is the only leather that is vegetable tanned, aniline dyed, and finished with a blend of neatsfoot oil and beeswax. We do not apply any synthetic finishes. Our rich color and shine is achieved using natural dyes, oils, and waxes.
What is the Difference Between Vegetable Tanned and Chrome Tanned Leather?
Chrome tanned leather pollutes the environment, is dangerous for leatherworkers, and can also be harmful for its users. When we launched our company we chose to produce vegetable tanned leather products in order to call more attention to the vast environmental and human degradation that is caused by the chrome tanning process. Unfortunately, 90% of leather in the world is chrome tanned. During the industrial revolution, the leather industry shifted from vegetable tanned leather to chrome tanned leather, as it is substantially cheaper and faster. The natural tree tannins are significantly more expensive than chromium III and its accompanying chemical cocktail. A batch of chrome tanned leather can be finished in hours, whereas vegetable tanning takes weeks to finish. The added time, expertise, and artistry required to make vegetable tanned leather add to its cost. However, the extra time and cost that goes into our leather makes our products heirloom quality, and allows us to proudly offer a lifetime warranty.
Chrome tanned leather, a.k.a. wet blue
Our vegetable tanned leather hides hang drying after tanning
Walking into Curtiembres del Valle, our tannery partners in the beautiful Santender region of Colombia, you’d immediately recognize Alta Andina’s hides hanging from the ceiling as leather. That would not be the case if you saw chrome tanned leather drying. Chromium III is a blue powder, so when hides are tanned with chrome, they come out a pale blue. Chrome tanned leather is referred to in the industry as “wet blue.” The harsh chemicals required in the chrome tanning process break down the fibrous structure of the hide more than the natural tannins used to make vegetable tanned leather. As a result, wet blue is formless after being tanned, completely limp and floppy. Our sturdy vegetable tanned leather maintains its form and natural strength, as vegetable tanning is a much slower, gentler process.
Chrome tanning kills the natural leather smell, again due to the mix of chemicals and chromium III. The offputting color and chemical smell of wet blue necessitate even more heavy processing after tanning so that consumers will recognize it as leather. Chrome tanned leather is almost always painted to hide the blue hue. Paint can be scratched off with your fingernail, and will eventually peel and fade with time and use. The paint and artificial coatings used on chrome tanned leather prevent it from developing a patina. To trick consumers into thinking of chrome tanned leather as high-quality, companies actually spritz chrome tanned leather products with an imitation leather scent.
Vegetable tanning was the original way to make leather, and humans quite literally have been making vegetable tanned leather since we stood on two feet. Some of the earliest garments were made from animal skins, and by using the tannins naturally occurring in trees, those skins could be turned into long lasting, durable protective garments. The etymology of the word tanning comes from the word tannin, which stems from the word tanna––old Germanic for an oak or fir tree. The tannins found in oak and fir trees, along with Andean trees like quebracho, mimosa, and tara, can all be used to make vegetable tanned leather. Thus, the meaning of the term tanning originates from the use of tannins in vegetable tanned leather.
Our Bottom Line
Chrome tanning began to dominate the market soon after its introduction in the 19th century. Due to the water and air pollution it produces, chrome tanning has been viewed from the beginning as a dirty industry, and was initially pushed to the outskirts of cities. Today, chrome tanning has been pushed out of the first world almost entirely. The leather industry has long concealed chrome tanning’s devastating effects on the surrounding environment and on leatherworkers. The destructive effects of chrome tanning are out of sight and out of mind for most consumers as the vast majority of chrome tanning takes place in Bangladesh and India.
Alta Andina is proud to join a growing movement that is shining a light on this industry. We believe by telling consumers the full story, they will choose vegetable tanned leather not only for its quality, longevity, and beauty, but also because of their concern for the environment, and for their fellow humans who suffer in dangerous working conditions. Every Alta Andina purchase supports an environmentally friendly supply chain and production process, as well as dignified wages, and safe working environments. You can read more about the human and environmental consequences of chrome tanned leather production here.