December 20, 2022
Main points covered in Part 1:
So what IS vegetable tanned leather (also referred to as “chrome free leather”) and what is vegetable tanned leather made of?
Vegetable tanned leather is:
Let's dig in.
Vegetable tanning is a non toxic, non heavy metal, process in which a cowhide is tanned into leather.
This unique process is where the hide is tanned with natural tannins derived from plants versus other various methods of tanning such as chromium tanning which is a non-natural, toxic and polluting process.
So, since these tannins are derived from plants, the process is referred to as “vegetable tanned leather.”
Tanning is a natural process which alters the collagen within the skin of an animal by binding with the tannins present within the vegetable dye tanning liquid, sealing the collagen molecules.
The hide’s molecular structure is altered to prevent decay from happening, a natural way of preserving the hide from bacterial damage.
“Tanning with plant substances has existed for over 5,000 years and was, for many centuries, the main tanning method. Ornaments placed on stone coffins reveal that vegetable tanning was around in the 4th millennium BC in Egypt. Since the discovery of Ötzi in the ice of the Alps it is evident that several leather types were prepared for various uses even 5,000 years ago. Recently, the more modern and industrialised tanning methods have become common and it can be assumed that nowadays only 10 - 12% of all leather is vegetable-tanned.” (Leather-dictionary.com)
Veg tan leather ages beautifully softening up over time and taking on the character of the owner and their use of their specific use of their leather patch hats and leather keychains.
Is chrome tanning eco friendly?
Well, let’s take a look at vegetable tanned leather vs chrome leather.
On the flip side of natural tannins from plants, chromium tanning uses chromium, a heavy metal, instead (other more common heavy metals for reference are Lead, Arsenic, Mercury and Cadmium, the more commonly understood heavy metals as toxic for humans as well as the environment).
Heavy metal poisoning often occurs as a result of industrial exposure, air or water pollution, foods, medicines, improperly coated food containers, the ingestion of lead-based paints and… the leather industry with chromium tanning methods.
Sun drying and boiling methods used in the the tanning process, can oxidise and convert the chromium 111, into the highly toxic hexavalent chromium, chromium V1.
Today 80-90% of leathers in our world are tanned with toxic metal chrome tanning methods.
Unfortunately even most leather brands who use the terms "sustainable leather" are still using metal tanning methods for most, if not all, of their leather.
Sometimes they may even use the terms "chrome free sustainable leather" or something along those lines, but their leather is still only partly vegetable tanned, but still partly chrome tanned in the process, so again, is still not truly metal free.
So what are they referring to as "sustainable leather?" Most of the time, they are often simply referring to their fair trade certificates.
Fair trade is a wonderful thing which we also believe in, no doubt about that - (giving good working conditions, fair wages, equal opportunity, etc.) but, in our opinion, truly sustainable leather should really be chrome & metal free, fully vegetable tanned leather, since the handling of veg tan vs metal tanned leather in and of itself, goes hand-in-hand with offering safe and healthy working conditions (which we'll dive into more in the next section.)
All in all, we recommend shooting any leather company an email to ask them if their leather is fully metal free, veg tan leather, if not directly specified under their sustainable leather terms. And if they aren't yet, simply request in the future to offer some more metal free options. 😊
Chrome Tanned leather is a process called wet-blueing.
This Chrome tanning / wet blueing process consists of a solution of chemicals, acids, and salts (including chromium sulfate) to tan the animal hide, again to stabilize and preserve the leather by altering and linking collagen fibers.
A big contributing factor in the tanning process of leather is the efficiency, productivity, and profitability of a tannery.
Whereas vegetable tanning takes 2+ weeks to sit in vats of tree tannin and natural oils to tan, chrome tanning is very quick, allowing a tannery to tan a leather hide from flesh to leather within 24 hours.
Another negative side effect of using chromium to tan leather is the fact that it takes quite a bit of water within the tanning process, all of which is then polluted and this polluted liquid and solid waste which contains the leftover chromium, is dumped into the surrounding environment, therefore affecting our drinking water, rivers, oceans, animals who consume/live in this water and so forth.
When chromium enters the water system in large quantities it can cause respiratory problems, infertility and birth defects.
This water pollution from chrome tanning, is a main factor of why the leather industry is one of the most pollutant industries in the world.
“The use of chromium also puts workers at risk during the tanning process. If the dust, which is produced when chrome tanned leather is buffed or ground up, is inhaled, it can cause respiratory problems and increase the risk of lung cancer. When chromium comes in contact with the skin it causes dryness and cracking and sores, known as ‘chrome holes’. Even chrome tanned leather in its finished form poses an environmental threat: if the leather seats from scrapped cars are burnt then toxic chromium V1 may be released into the atmosphere. This can even occur as a result of car upholstery being exposed to prolonged strong sunlight.”Mahileather.com
The hide and natural leather itself is a biodegradable material, but with the popular chrome tanning method to persevere the hide, the leather becomes non-recyclable and non-biodegradable.
Chrome tanned leather and the way it’s processed, inhibits the ability to be composted naturally within landfills.
In fact when they went down to the titanic, over 100 years later, they found a leather wallet within a vault, still in tact, miles under the sea. Vegetable tanned leather would have deteriorated.
In the end, leather production that uses the traditional vegetable tanning process, and companies who choose veg tan leather for their leather goods, including leather patch hats and leather keychains, will always be the more environmentally friendly and clean option.
Vegetable tanned leather is a labor intensive method, a truly underestimated art, but the results are superior and incomparable, for us and our earth.
After splitting and de-hairing and de-fleshing the hides, the split hides are then transferred to a large space containing numerous vats containing the tanning liquid consisting of various blends of natural tannins from wood barks such as the bark of mimosa, quebracho, oak, spruce, acacia trees as well as olive leaves, rhubarb roots, tara pods.
The hides then spend at least 2 weeks soaking with the tannin liquid pits.
Once finished soaking, the hides are removed and the excess liquid is removed and split into various thickness’s.
The tanned hides are then sent through a process called drum dying, where various shades are applied to transform the hides into rich colored leathers.
Next is the fat liquoring process with nourishing and conditioning oils and waxes such as tallow as one example.
The hides are then hung on stainless steel screens to air dry for several days and lastly are soften through the process of staking.
Wickett and Craig Leather produce not only one of the last vegetable tanned leather in the US, but is some of the finest and highest quality vegetable tanned leather tanned here in America. Currently Dekni's primary tannery is in Mexico who vegetable tan's our leather. We are currently in the process of transitioning to sourcing fully W&C leather for all of our custom leather patch hats and custom leather keychains.
Overall, the labor intensive vegetable tanning process we've described has it’s higher price, but the quality and contribution to:
….far out-ways the costs, in our opinion.
These are only a few reasons why Dekni Creations has decided to use vegetable tanned bridle leather and offer more high end products.
👉 To keep reading, be sure to check out Part 2 of this article for some common questions and confusions surrounding vegetable tanned leather and the differences of leathers on the market today. Click here now!
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