What is vegetable tanned leather?
As opposed to some myths, vegetable tanned leather is not vegan or made out of vegetables. Yet, many questions revolve around what vegetable tanned leather actually is. In this article, you will find out more about the different tanning methods used for making leather which is used for watch straps, bags or furniture - and how to choose the right one for your needs.
Producing leather: The tanning process
Today, many factories producing leather only work with animals whose other parts have been used for food production to avoid any unnecessary waste. After an animal is skinned, the resulting layer of tissue is degreased and has its hairs removed, a process after which the so-called “untreated skin” is obtained. Naturally, this untreated skin is an organic material thus it would enter putrefaction and solidify shortly after. The tanning process aims to prevent this process from occurring by turning the untreated skin into leather.
How is vegetable tanned leather obtained?
Once the leather enters the tanning process, different methods can be applied. Vegetable tanned leather means that plant-based substances are used for the tanning process. Such plant-based substances can be tannins or tannoids which are are tannic acids found in several species of plants and trees, such as oaks, wattles, redouls etc. They can be extracted from fruits, leaves, branches or even from the bark itself, depending on the desired tanning technique.
Naturally, the untreated skin contains collagen, which is a vital protein that strengthens skin and keeps it elastic. The process of vegetable tanning modifies the molecular structure of the skin because the tannin molecules bind and cover the collagen molecules, decreasing their water solubility and increasing their resistance to bacteria.
The process is lengthy and costly, since it can take anywhere between one and three months until its successful completion and requires multiple treatments from skilled craftspeople.
The advantages of vegetable tanned leather:
- It obtains a very natural earthy tone, which will shift into a darker hue with a softer touch as years pass by.
- It gains a sweet, distinctive leather fragrance.
- It is highly durable and may last up for many years, if cared for properly.
- There are no two identical vegetable tanned products, which means each of them is unique.
- Vegetable tanned leathers can usually be recycled by up to 100%.
- The tanning process is more environmentally friendly compared to traditional chrome-based tanning methods.
What is the difference to chrome tanned leather?
The process of chrome tanning was discovered in the middle of the 19th century, during the Industrial Revolution, when all industries were undergoing major changes and their aim was to produce faster for less money.
The tanning process works similarly as described above, yet the water from the collagen proteins is replaced by chrome, an inexpensive mineral tanning agent. Additionally, several solutions of acids, salts and chemicals are used in the process of mineral tanning which are highly polluting for the environment, especially if disposed improperly.
However, chrome tanning is much less expensive and extremely quick in comparison to other traditional tanning methods, with the process sometimes lasting as little as seven hours. These are the reasons why up to 90% of the leather products present on the market today are made of chrome tanned leather.
So what are the advantages of chrome tanned leather?
- The resulted leather is not as tough as opposed to its vegetable tanned counterpart, which means it is more malleable and easier to be used, for instance, in the making of jackets and gloves.
- The leather can be colored in a very wide variety of colors which don’t change over time.
- It is more resistant to stains and can cope with high temperatures.
Which leather to choose?
Choosing the ideal type of leather depends on the product category, its expected usage period and its properties.
While chrome tanned leather is easily available due to its mass-production and thus cheaper, it is important to keep in mind that it can crack even just after several months of use and doesn’t have the same natural look or smell, as opposed to the vegetable tanned leather. Also, the tanning process can be very harmful to nature, particularly if the tannery doesn’t safely dispose the used chemicals.
On the other hand, vegetable tanned leather is understandably more expensive and harder to find because it requires highly skilled craftspeople and up to three months for its production. Moreover, it comes in a limited color palette and is not water repellant, which means it has higher maintenance requirements. (Read more: How to take care of your vegetable tanned leather watch strap.) However, it develops its own patina over time, is safer for the environment and, if properly preserved, it can last for many years.
Leather used at Mermaid Stories
For all watch straps at Mermaid Stories, we choose to only work with vegetable tanned leather which we source from Germany. Next to the fact that it is a perfect choice when you are allergic to chrome, the leather feels nicely soft on your wrist from the start and develops a beautiful patina over time. And: It has this nice smell like saddles, freedom and herbs - just as leather should smell.