Crème de la Crème of Leather!
Posted on May 11 2016
Leather has been a valuable resource for centuries. From the papyrus pages of Homer’s Iliad and the Ancient Greek banks of Mesopotamia to the ruins of Pompeii and waterways of the ancient Moors in Morocco, there is clear evidence that humans have been using leather for many things like clothing, writing, tribal drums, tools, flasks and even vessels and water pipes, namely by the Phoenicians. But in order for that animal hide to last, it needed to be preserved. So in primitive times, natural things like ash, animal products and smoke were smeared, wafted and soaked upon the resource to ensure a more durable product. Known as tanning, this process evolved in tandem with the growing study of chemistry.
Evidence of the more innovative process of using vegetables and minerals to tan leather dates back hundreds of years when Colonial America was growing and the craft was turning into a profitable and vital industry. The bark of Hemlock trees because of its high tannin content was harvested and then used. So naturally as the demand for more trees grew, so did the need to migrate businesses away from the cities and into the forests of the Northeast.
By the 1800s the industry was booming, but the onslaught on the Hemlock, the rising costs amid hard economic times and the awareness of the damage the waste was doing to water supplies resulted in a sharp downturn in the industry and the way in which tanning was done by the early 1900s. This shift triggered the usage of more synthetic materials and chemicals like chromium to tan leather, a trend that has remained today.
But it also prompted others to rethink the process of vegetable tanning and develop more environmentally-friendly ways of doing it because it still resulted in the strongest, most durable leather that could last for generations.
Today, only about 10-20 percent of the world’s leather is tanned using vegetables. The cost and length of time it takes to complete the process has dissuaded many manufacturers from using it and instead turn to the synthetics and chemicals to preserve leather much like high fructose corn syrup has often replaced natural sugar.
But Italy and companies like Blackwood have remained steadfast in preserving the traditional, more natural process.
How does it work?
Vegetable tanning is environmentally-friendly because it involves only natural ingredients, and the leather can be recycled. The natural tannins, derived from different parts of plants including woods, barks, fruits, fruit pods and leaves, change with age, developing a rich patina and earthy scent. Hemlock bark is known to produce a rich, brown color, while oaks result in a more golden color. Hundreds of other trees like chestnut and mimosa have also been used.
You might be wondering how animal hide plus tree bark results in durable, pliable leather. When the hide is soaked in a bark solution, the powerful tannins bind to the collagen proteins in the hide and coat them, causing them to become less water-soluble and more resistant to bacterial attack. The process of soaking the hides in this solution also causes the hide to become more flexible.
The process is rather complicated and because of the multiple treatments required sometimes in order to ensure that the tannin molecules take their places in just the right way, a lot of work from highly skilled craftsmen is also involved.
In an effort to make the process more efficient, it was discovered in the mid-1800s that by adding the mineral known as chrome to a tanning solution, the process became much more automated and cut the time needed to only a day from the previous two months. However, with the more efficient process came a less durable and less sustainable product.
Like Italy, Blackwood believes that quality should not be sacrificed for the sake of efficiency. The Genuine Italian Vegetable-Tanned Leather Consortium, which is comprised of more than a dozen tanneries, all operating in Tuscany, in the area between Pisa and Florence, shares the same standards of production.
“Vegetable-tanned leather absorbs the traces of our life, it matures without ruining,” says the Consortium. “The natural aging does not compromise its resistance. It reveals the signs of time and use as the most personal expression of naturalness and truth.”
It is this philosophy and passion that Blackwood also brings to every product it creates, resulting in crème de la crème of leather products.
To get an idea of how durable and sustainable naturally-tanned leather can be, check out this link: