The Radcliffe Red List of Endangered Crafts

 

Tanning

 

The process of using vegetable or chrome tanning to convert raw hide/skin into leather. See the separate entry for oak bark tanning.

 

Status Currently viable
Craft category  Leather
Historic area of significance
Area currently practised
Origin in the UK
Minimum no. of craftspeople required  11-20
Current no. of trainees  1-5
Current no. of skilled craftspeople  11-20
Current total no. of craftspeople  11-20

 

History

Historically, tanning was done using chemicals derived from plants, such as extracts from the barks of certain types of trees (vegetable tanning). In the nineteenth century, tanning with chrome salts (chrome tanning) was introduced. Today, about ninety percent of tanning is prepared though a combination of vegetable and chrome tanning, with the exception of the leather for the soles of shoes, and leather that is used for tooling. The most commonly produced leather is chrome-tanned shoe leather.

There are two types of leather – full grain and top grain. Full grain leather is leather that has not been tampered with after removing it from the animal – the hair is removed and the grain or epidermis is left on. Top grain leather is worked with to cover up any scars or blemishes on the skin and is usually sanded and sprayed.

The process of tanning varies according to the intended use of the leather; the end product. However, generally in the preparation for tanning, larger animal hides are divided and cut according to body areas, while smaller animals (e.g. calf, goat, pig and reptiles) are left as one piece. Firstly the hair must be removed from the skin. The hides and skins are in water to be washed and rehydrated, with lime liquors used to loosen the hair and plump the hide. The hair that has been removed is sold on to plasterers or felt manufactures. The hides and skins are naturally uneven and of different thicknesses. Therefore, in order to even them out they are run through a plotting machine. Thickness throughout a hide differs, hence why leathers are shown to have different thicknesses on their labelling.

 

Techniques

The tanning process consists of putting hides in weak solutions of tannic acids which gradually increase in strength. The tanning operation varies in time from 3 weeks to 3 months, dependent on the type of hide being tanned and the thickness of it. The leather is then dried in such a way that the leather does not diffuse into ‘grain’ or the ‘flesh’ using oils applied to wet leather which form a film to arrest this diffusion. While still wet, the leather is ‘set out’ removing creases and ‘rolled on’ to help make the characteristic smooth surface of leather. The leather is thoroughly dried out and ‘rolled off’ on very heavy pressure rollers which gives the polish to the finished leather.

 

Local forms

 

Sub-crafts

Different people do different parts of the job. There are crossovers where they do other people’s jobs, but no one person does it all. Tanners would be working in the tanyard, limeyard men working in the limeyard, curriers would be staining and dressing leather and then those in the machine shop who would be splitting and shaving. Some people might do more than one of those.

 

Issues affecting the viability of the craft

  • Lack of awareness: Although the leather has better tensile strength, looks nicer, and lasts longer than machine tanned leather, these qualities might only show after twenty years’ wear. Customers need to be made aware of this and understand what goes into the whole process.
  • Market issues: There are a lot of available markets, but someone has to go and look for them to enable the business to thrive. These include shoes, saddlery, luggage, and fashion goods. Again, company buyers need to be educated regarding quality if our production is not to lose out to cheaper machine processed leathers.
  • Supply of raw materials: Supply of hides is local and safe. Local hides are used and generally the standard is quite good, although a premium is paid for selection. Materials are bought through a hide merchant, and they buy from the abattoir, and they know what is needed.

 

Support organisations

 

Craftspeople currently known

Other tanneries include:

 

Other information

 

References