Everything About Vegetable Tanned Leather

What is Vegetable Tanned Leather?

Vegetable tanning, also known as tanning, is the process of turning cattle into leather. Due to the natural compounds used in the tanning process, such as tree bark, it is called "vegetable." One of the oldest techniques used today is vegetable tanning, or vegetable tanning, as it is sometimes called. Literally, for millennia it has existed. But currently, less than 10% of all leather is tanned this way.

Vegetable tanning is special because it produces thicker leathers with more body and character, ideal for making bags. Also, vegetable-tanned leather matures better and acquires a beautiful patina. Plus, vegetable tanned leather smells of leather, which is amazing.

What does the term "vegetable tanning" mean?

Animal hides are turned into leather through a special tanning process involving the following steps. Vegetable tanning and chrome tanning are two different tanning techniques.

Vegetable-tanned leather applies vegetable-derived oils and waxes to rawhide or other animal skins to create a smooth, supple finish. The hairs are removed from the skin's surface by soaking them in water or salt water called "pickle."

Vegetable tanning is a very complex process. The fresh hide is cut almost immediately after the animal is slaughtered. A beam house is part of a tannery where animal skins are prepared for tanning, and fresh animal skins are received. The processes used in the beam houses where the first leather is produced are soaking, liming, fleshing, and delimbing.

Pre-tanning involves quickly salting the skin to prevent bacteria from growing on the skin. Soaking removes excess salt, blood, and cow dung from the hides. The next step is the file, which improves hair removal and weakens collagen for a proper tan. Vegetable-tanned leather is a unique product due to its artisanal manufacture.

What makes vegetable tanning so special?

What makes it special? To find out, let's consider vegetable browning in more detail. Using organic materials and wood from trees as natural sources of tannin makes it possible to produce vegetable leather. The most popular natural tanning substances are made from oak and walnut wood.

Depending on the concentration of the tree bark solution, different tree barks give a different appearance to the animal during the tanning process. The tanning agent is buried under the skin. The method is designed to remove moisture from leather. After this tanning process, it will become more resistant to water and bacteria.

As a result of this process, the leather becomes soft and flexible. It can take 54-70 days for the vegetable browns to develop fully. Vegetable tanning makes it possible to obtain leather products of excellent quality without hair or grease residues. The time it took to produce vegan leather led to the development of chrome-tanned leather.


To prepare the hide for tanning, the hair or wool is often removed using specific chemicals to eat the hair roots. Lime treatment is done to open the fibers and remove unwanted material between the fibers. Further procedures will be performed to remove the hair roots and alter the elastic characteristics visibly. Physical processes would remove the meat, and thick skins would be split to achieve the correct thickness.

Pits with different concentrations of tannins were used for vegetable tanning in the past. Today, many tanners produce fine leather using drum and pit systems, and some only use drums, which can reduce the time required as the movement of the drum speeds the penetration of the tan into the leather.

Tanning involves removing the compound (along with the skin) and continuing until the skin is completely saturated. To prevent the surface from cooking too soon, the first tan that comes into contact with the leather should be light and less concentrated. The result is a configuration that goes from if: not so low to if: not so high.

In the wells, a counter-current system is typical in which the wine flows through a succession of wells in the opposite direction to the movement of the skins. Straps, manipulators, and finally, layers (cold method) or hot wells are the three sets of wells through which the skins pass. (more common today).

Each skin has a solid tan material scattered throughout the segments. A firm leather is formed in three months by fermentation and deposited on the skin. Traditional oakbark leather must spend at least a year in the trenches. As the skins progress from weak to strong, the strong alcoholic beverages from the later wells move slowly through the system. The leather is stacked for a few days to allow the tan to be fully set.

Vegetable-tanned leather undergoes several different processes after tanning which are often classified as "curing" or "pickling." To prevent vegetable tanning from migrating onto the surface, the leather should be rolled when wet and slightly dry. Hides or skins are usually dried in a hearth while hanging from stakes. Wood-slatted windows can be used to gently control temperature and provide air. 

Rolling helps with spasticity management. The leather hardens when rolled while becoming soft when dried. Heavy laminating machines of different weights are used depending on the type of leather. Sole leather gets the toughest bearing because it requires strong, dense, well-coordinated leather.

Why is vegetable-tanned leather mainly used?

Vegetable-tanned leather has durability and beauty that only a handmade product can maintain, even though chrome or chrome-tanned leather is cheaper to produce and the colors last longer.

Leather, often chrome-tanned, has an acrylic varnish applied to the edges causing it to peel, crack and split after only a few years. Also, chromium is a heavy metal that is extremely toxic to the environment and the workers who handle it. Vegetable-tanned leather products soften and acquire a patina as they age, thanks to the long and slow traditional methods of preparing the hides.

The longer you use vegetable-tanned leather saddles, belts, wallets, notebook covers, backpacks, shoes, and handbags, the more comfortable they will be. The ends of the vegetable-tanned leather are burnished or turned, making them durable enough to last many years. Typically, this type of leather is initially stiff but becomes softer with time and use.

Additionally, vegetable-tanned leather has a distinctive "leathery" smell compared to the typical chemical smell of chrome-tanned products. The rich, woody, and aromatic aroma is present. Its character is enhanced by the ease with which the original fibers of the animal's skin can be seen. A piece of leather that has been tanned is truly one of a kind. Finally, because it is an artisanal process, vegetable tanning produces some of the most resistant and flexible leather.

It is used where toughness can be beneficial, such as in saddles, holsters, wallets, journals, travel journals, and handbags, as it is a much less flexible product than the leather retained by chrome. Vegetable-tanned leather is more expensive than chrome leather because the tanning process is very traditional. It is usually used for expensive handmade leather products. But because it becomes incredibly soft and malleable, many manufacturers use it to make durable goods like shoes, bags, belts, and clothing.

Although this tanning technique consumes a lot of water, it is not as harmful to the environment as chrome tanning. The vegetable tanning process also uses less machinery and, therefore, less energy.

Characteristics of Vegetable Tanning

One of the oldest leather tanning techniques is vegetable tanning, which involves turning an animal's raw hide into a product that retains many of its original properties using only tannins, which are only found in nature. These are known substances (especially in the bark of certain trees). It is from this complex transformation process that what is known as "vegetable tanned leather" is produced.

Using natural ingredients, vegetable tanning is a natural process that respects the environment and the animal while giving unique leather properties. Additionally, the leather is not modified or aggressively handled during this process. Finally, the raw hides used for tanning are made from recycled materials as they come from cows and sheep raised for subsistence and not for their hides.

This characteristic indicates that no animals are sacrificed for the tanning process. Thanks to all these factors, vegetable-tanned leathers not only do not contain harmful toxins for humans and the environment but are generally well accepted by people allergic to heavy metals.

History of Vegetable Tanning

Although the Middle Ages saw the greatest advances in vegetable tanning, by the end of the 19th century, almost all leather was produced using this method. Some natural tanning techniques date back 2,000 years.

The method uses water and a group of tanning agents called tannins, found in the bark of various plants, including oak, birch, chestnut, and acacia. Vegetable tanning used to be a very slow process, requiring hides to be stretched on a loom and immersed in a solution of water and tree bark for one to three months, with the condition of the tanning checked frequently.

Additionally, this type of leather could have been more flexible and was commonly used for belts, purses, and shoes. The secrets of this invaluable artisanal process have been carefully passed down from generation to generation by skilled tanners. Today, the process is a perfect combination of traditional methods and advanced technologies.

Vegetable tanning was done in vats (slow tanning in vats) and lasted about 30 days. Softer leather can now be obtained, and the tanning time, which currently fluctuates between 36 and 48 hours, can be reduced by the so-called rapid tanning method, mainly used on drums.

Benefits of Vegetable Tanning

The main benefits of vegetable tanning are:

  • Each skin is unique and irreplaceable, differentiating itself from others by these aspects.
  • It is safe for those with sensitivities.
  • a characteristic and recognizable odor
  • It's easily customizable using various methods, including engraving, printing, color, and more.
  • You can achieve a dense layer of up to 6 millimeters, which is impossible with other tanning methods.
  • The epidermis is stronger and more durable and tends to improve over time rather than with age.
  • It is environmentally sound.
  • higher cost than alternative treatments
  • The end customer sees greater value

Chrome Vs. Vegetable Tanning for Leather:

Today, many different staining techniques are used. The oldest and most complex process is vegetable tanning. The oldest known technique for tanning leather is vegetable tanning, which dates to around 6000 BC.

Although hundreds of different species of trees and other flora have been used, the tannins of trees such as oak, chestnut, or mimosa are best known. Minerals such as chromium sulfate were developed in the middle of the 18th century and are used in modern rapid tanning techniques (also called chrome tanning.

The collagen matrix must be cross-linked to prevent putrefaction and subsequent degradation, which is essentially the same idea. It is accomplished by binding the chromium salt to collagen proteins and cross-linking between them to form a stable chromium-protein complex. The process involves "washing" the leather in large rotating drums with chromium salts.

Chrome tanning can be accomplished in less than a day, is much faster than vegetable tanning, and generally results in supple leather that reacts well to water and lasts much of its "life." Due to its benefits and product effectiveness, chrome tanning accounts for approximately 80% of all leather produced globally, making it a low-cost means of leather production. However, the use of heavy metal materials often causes more harm to the environment.

How to identify brown vegetable leather?

Nothing could be easier than that; bring:

  • Thin Strip of Leather
  • Cigar
  • An Unfinished Piece of Paper
  • Amount of Liquid
  • Revenge

Once you have all these materials, start burning your leather with a small flame. Remove the flame once the leather begins to burn (producing black ash) and slowly breaks down. Collect the embers and spread them on a sheet of white paper using a cookie cutter.

Small dark chips indicate that the leather is vegetable. Vegetable tannins are responsible for the brown color. If your tip turns green, your leather is mineral tanned; the chrome used in mineral tanning gives the leather its green color.

If you don't see either of these important colors, we suggest rubbing your burnt leather on white paper to let the ash settle and moisten it slightly. The wet ash would enhance the brown color of vegetable-tanned leather or the green color of chrome used in mineral tanning.

What is vegetable-tanned leather made of?

Leather made from fir and oak bark is called vegetable leather. Quebracho, tara pods, olive leaves, rhubarb stalks, and mimosa are typical. Hides and skins are thrown into a pit with these materials. The leather is called vegetable-tanned leather because these polyphenols come from plants.

Vegetable tanning is a process that consists of six main steps:

  • Treatment

Animal hides are salted to kill rot-causing bacteria.

  • Liming

Lime milk is used to soak the hides and remove traces of hair and grease. 

  • D-liming

By immersing each skin in a different chemical solution, the pH level of each skin is lowered.

  • Tanning

For 30 to 60 days, the hides are transferred between several barrels, each filled with tanning solutions of different concentrations.

  • The Drying

After being removed from the barrels, the skins are dried for two to four days.

  • Treatment

The finished leather is stretched, measured, oiled, and cut. Different finishing processes can also be used depending on the use of the leather.

Where can I buy vegetable-tanned leather?

This leather is available for purchase locally and online. You can buy it where you will pay a reasonable amount. However, it is recommended to buy it privately after carefully checking it with your own hands.

Caring for your vegetable-tanned leather

  • Try not to get your leather wet.

Vegetable-tanned leather should never be handled roughly, and water should never come into contact with it. Regularly applying a protective spray will help maintain the finish of your leather products.

  • Keep heat away from your leather.

The two most common ways leather is damaged are direct exposure to sunlight and fire. Please note that vegetable-tanned leather is a special type of leather that requires special care to resist water damage and sun exposure. (avoid boiling the water).

  • Avoid using brushes with artificial bristles.

Proper care of leather is important to maintain its appearance and prevent damage. Instead of synthetic brushes, it is better to use brushes with natural bristles as they will not damage the underlying vegetable tan layer of the skin.

  • Never air-dry leather.

Caring for leather is essential because it is a beautiful and expensive material. Using a low heat setting in the dryer is one of the biggest mistakes people make when cleaning leather. It causes the leather to lose its color, shrink and tear.

Wrapping it up

Vegetable-tanned leather is a very rare and expensive leather. Only rich people use this type of leather product. In the above article, we shared some useful information about vegetable-tanned leather. If you are new to this type of leather, this article is for you. This article will tell you everything about vegetable tanned leather.

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