How Is Leather Tanned?
Leather tanning is, in very simple terms, a way to preserve the hide of an animal. If we aren’t beating around the bush, leather is skin, and if it isn’t preserved it will rot. There are many different ways that leather is tanned, some of which are incredibly common, and some of which might sound a little crazy. Most of these are named after the primary tanning agent. Some of these include:
Chromium, or Chrome Tanning: Uses Chromium Sulfate as the tanning agent, and is very fast and efficient.
Vegetable Tanning: Tanned using organic material, generally bark. When you think vegetable tanning, think bark, not carrots.
Brain Tanning: Yup. That is exactly what it sounds like. This method uses animal brains as the tanning agent. Peta would have a fit.
Chrome tanning is the most common, followed by vegetable tanning. However, there are very few tanneries of any type left in the United States. At this point, roughly 90% of the hides that are skinned in the U.S are exported to other countries for tanning.
U.S hides are in high demand, since the livestock in the U.S is often better taken care of than elsewhere in the world. It is a giant international trading system. The U.S and Brazil are some of the largest suppliers of raw hides, whereas Mexico, Italy, and China are the most prominent countries for receiving those hides for tanning.
Italy: Just about everyone has heard of Italian Leather. Now that just means the leather was tanned in Italy, not that the cow was Italian or that the product was assembled there. Italy has a great reputation for quality and craftsmanship when it comes to tanning their leather.
Mexico: Leon, Mexico is the leather capital of North America. They do an insane amount of tanning and production, churning out a whopping 60% of the shoes in Mexico. A large portion of American hides go to Leon to be tanned.
China: China gets a bad rap in Western Culture. When we hear “Made in China” we often think a product is immediately cheap and perhaps mildly unethical.
Peta has even recently had a campaign trying to tell people that even leather products made in the U.S are made out of leather from China, where animal abuse laws are less strict. What they leave out is that most of those animals are actually from the U.S or Brazil, and the hides are just sent to China. It is hard to abuse a hide that is already dead. Regardless of that, the stereotype against China is a little harsh. Granted, you can get incredibly cheap labor and materials in China, which leads to cheap products. But this doesn’t mean that anything that comes out of China is poor quality. My favorite leather shoes were made in China, and they have lasted for years. They have some great tanneries. They have some less great tanneries. Just make sure you trust the source of your products(we do background checks on companies in our product reviews).
Unless you are very well versed, and looking for something incredibly specific, you probably don’t have to worry much about where your leather was tanned. And deep down, knowing what kind of tanning was used probably isn’t crucial, but it is something to be aware of. If you are educated about the industry, you are less likely to get ripped off.
We would like to give a big thank you to Matt Foster from Maverick Leather and Mike Redwood for all their help with the researching of this article.