Tanners; A Dying Art Form in North America

I spend a lot of time working in and around leather jackets. It seems to me that for most people the whole process of where jackets come from and how they are made is a bit of a mystery. I spend all my time concentrating on how to improve little tiny differences of the process. So I am going to spend some time sharing some of the basic mechanics of making leather. I can tell you that trying to recreate the way leather was made in 1900 is no easy task. The reality is that modern clothing is a reflection of modern processes, and modern processes are about automation, profits ahead of value and reification. Essentially the North American Tannery is an endangered species. Leather is made in China, South America and other places where labour, animals and environmental practices are seldom a concern and often unregulated. The "craft" of making leather is for the most part gone. I'm trying to rediscover that craft to bring authenticity back to the process, along with an intrepid bunch of intrested others who I connect with daily via the web, this blog and my business.


  1. Do you think that for there to be a 'craft' element to leather jacket manufacture/tailoring it has to happen in North America? Wouldn't it be possible for an educated and enterprising individual (such as yourself) to harness the advantages of working in these other locales, while producing a high quality garment? Or even to generate a suitable tanned hide which can be imported?
    What kind of tariffs are there on import of tanned leather? Keep the environmental harm elsewhere (still not ideal), but obtain a GOOD quality material here for assembly.

    We shipped manufacture of most textiles overseas for the reasons you mentioned (cheap, unregulated environment/animals). Can a tannery effectively operate in North America while balancing old techniques (which did their share of environmental damages), with new societal values of avoiding environmental harm? Can tanning be sustainable (AND profitable)? Perhaps THIS is the challenge that has resulted in a different quality product. The thick gnarly horsehide you love just can't be produced by less environmentally offensive processes.

    Also, nice photos of stacked flesh... are these from your own visits to a tannery? What's with the image quality? Its like spirits of dead animals are fogging up the lens.

  2. Ok, this is a very complex issue but its not one I'm going to shirk away from. Is there a craft element to tanning. Of course there is! Generational business pass on secret recipes and formulations for their products. Like all industries, the chemistry has been commercialized and many companies use all the same branded products, thus all the leather turns out the same. Working in foreign lands is not out of the question but in my opinion they way it happens now is unethical. All cultures have something to contribute to any conversation but the current globalized clothing industry is un-environmental and exploitative. For example did you know that the leather used at these tanneries is shipped from the u.s. to china, processed, manufactured and reshipped back, imagine the green footprint on that! Finally, anything is sustainable if people are willing to pay for it, Hermes hand makes all their bags in France, stitch by stitch, is it sustainable...they have a 4 year waiting list. The photo was an art shot, I work with a tannery to develop leather products. We are trying to produce the perfect hide!

  3. Oh..btw, the few remaining tanneries in N.A. are regulated, all waste water is stored and treated. And...the old way of tanning using various woods, excrement and other organic materials while smelly was not particularly toxic. Tanning was akin to creating an artificial swamp and sticking flesh into it. What is toxic is if you dump the waste materials untreated into peoples drinking water, abuse animals, waste oil, exploit children and produce disposable cheap crap. Leather by its nature is organic, it isn't once you plasticize, paint or process it into fabric!

  4. David, I love your blog. It's great that you talk not just about finished leather goods, but how they were made as well. I think most people really have no idea how a hide goes from animal to finished leather product. I took a whole class on the process, and it wasn't until then that I realized how detrimental tanneries are to the environment. I primarily use recycled leather for my projects, as I like the look of worn leather and feel better about the environmental impact. But can you tell me, are there any tanneries anywhere that would actually fall into the "green" category? I have researched a bit in the past and come up with very little. If you know of anything, I'd be curious to hear...thanks.

  5. Green leather is a complex melange of issues: Green chemistry, green treatment of animal hides, green treatment of effluents, and maybe issues of tanning process' producing a more environmental hide. I can sum up the issues like this. Leather made in North America and Europe are subject to strict regulation and controls. This means they cannot dump effluents untreated into the waste stream, animals are slaughtered according to industry standards and tanning chemistry is subject to research and attempts to be as toxic free as possible. This for example has lead to advances in chemistry like using Chromium 3 salts vs toxic Chromium 4 salts, reducing the amount released from the leather etc...there are process' in Europe (Germany) that are using polymer based tannages but this might mean the leather final product is more harmful as it will never degrade, has all the toxic issues associated with polymers and is part of the petrochemical process. So green means different things to different people. There is leather that could be made perfectly "green" but I suspect your customers would never pay the cost to do it. So one can aspire towards greener pastures so to speak! Stick to N.A. and Europe and share your concerns with the staff at your tannery and they will certainly try and accommodate you.

  6. In your headline, did you mean to be clever and say "dyeing art", as in changing the color of something, or "dying art" as in the process of getting dead?
    And the plural of tannery is tanneries. Yeah, I know, the hated grammar cop. But misspellings on the web multiply exponentially when exposed to who knows how many readers. I find myself having to think before spelling some words because I've seen them misspelled or misused so frequently on the web.


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