Leather connoisseurs all over the globe look to vegetable tanned leather as the superior choice for fashion accessories. Vegetable leather has a slightly deceiving name. The name refers to the method of tanning the cowhide using natural tannins like tree bark and vegetable. It’s one of the oldest tanning methods in history and the hallmark of artisanship.
At Kerry Noël, our leather bags and accessories are made using this vegetable tanning process. As part of our educational series on leather, we’re taking a deep dive to find out what is veg tan leather and the process behind making it.
What is vegetable leather?
Vegetable leather is made through a process known as tanning. Around 10% of all leather produced across the world is vegetable leather. What makes vegetable tanning unique is that it changes the protein structure in the cowhide, turning it into leather. The vegetables work to preserve, strengthen, and color the leather.
While vegetables are occasionally used, the most popular way of making veg tan leather is with tree bark and leaves. You’ll often see willow, oak, and chestnut used for the distinctive natural colors they can create.
We’ve already touched on how veg tan leather is a type of craftsmanship that has been handed down through the generations, but do you know how old it is? It’s one of four prehistoric techniques used for tanning leather and is believed to date back over 5,000 years.
In Sumer – which is today known as Iraq and Kuwait – our ancestors would soak the hides in water, along with mimosa bark and leaves to create leather. Veg tan leather was used to make early clothing and bags for transporting food.
The vegetable tanning process evolved under the Romans, whose Tuscan craftsmen utilized the technique to make leather sandals. It’s no coincidence that Italy is held as the gold standard for leather production.
Full-grain vegetable tanned leather has developed from thousands of years of evolution to create the leather goods we know and love today. When you buy a veg tan leather bag, you’re getting a small piece of leather history.
Why Kerry Noel uses veg tan leather
It’s no surprise that the vegetable tanning of leather is one technique that has withstood the test of time. The vegetable tanned leather process produces leather that is thicker and has a distinctive character. The appeal of veg tan leather comes from the rich patina that it develops over time, along with the signature leather smell that it carries along with it.
You’re probably wondering how to make vegetable tanned leather. It’s a simple process that has been refined and handed down through the generations.
Preparing the hide
The first step of making veg tan leather is to prepare the cowhide. Over several days, the hide will be rehydrated to restores its soft texture. The hair is also removed before we cut the hide into two pieces, known as the sides.
When the sides are ready, they are placed into vats with natural tannins, including tree bark. This step is the most time-consuming of the vegetable tanning process, as the hide spends several weeks soaking up the natural tannins. They’re checked on throughout this time to ensure the liquid is being absorbed into the hides.
Once they’re finished, the hides are taken from the vats, and the excess liquid is removed. At this stage, we shave the hide down until the leather is at its required thickness.
If the leather is going 'au natural' and not being dyed, it’s almost finished. This type of veg tan leather has a pale pink hue. Most of the vegetable tan leather you’ll see – including what we use at Kerry Noël – is dyed to give it a rich color and personality.
Adding character to the leather
At this stage, the leather is a blank canvas waiting to be transformed into something special. The hide is dyed in drums that look similar to wine barrels. It may also be conditioned to make it more durable with waxes. We finish up drying and staking the hide, helping to soften the leather to make it feel like butter.
The final steps for veg tan leather
By this time, it’s taken around six weeks to make the veg tan leather. Artisans will finish the process by spraying waxes and a sealant to protect the leather.