Vegetable Tanned Leather - Explained

Vegetable tanned leather meaning

Vegetable tanned leather means it has been turned from animal skin to leather through a tanning process that uses extracts taken from natural vegetation such as tree bark, leaves or berries alongside mineral & fish oils. No chemicals are used.

Vegetable tanning is the oldest way of tanning leather and can be traced back to the ancient Greeks around 5000 BC. People would use animals skins to protect themselves from the elements and they discovered a way of producing leather using vegetation extracts.

The key characteristics of vegetable tanned leather are; it feels firm to start with but softens with use and it never stays the same.

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Natural & Harm Free

Vegetable tanning is a natural process which doesn’t use any chemicals so it is harm free. Chrome tanning is the other way of tanning leather and this was developed in the 1800s. This way of tanning uses chromium salts as the tanning agent so this way of producing is chemical based.

how does Vegetable Tanned Leather age?

Appearance Never Stays The Same - as this type of leather is tanned in a natural way, the appearance of the leather will change over time but it’s one of those things that only gets better with age. See images below for reference.

  • Patina: this is the main thing that happens and all of the below contributes to the patina. A patina is a soft sheen that appears on the surface which is a result of the ageing process. Honestly, once you use the leather the feel/texture of it is lovely!

  • Colour: more pronounced on lighter colours and most definitely on un dyed vegetable tanned leather, the colour will darken and you can also start to get tonal differences.

  • Softens with use: vegetable tanned leather starts out firm and hard but the more you use it, the more it softens. Different tanneries/regions will have a slightly different recipe but based on the same core principles. Leather from the Tuscan region in Italy will go a ‘buttery’ soft over time. Where bridle leather from England will have a more waxy feel.

  • Affected by direct sunlight: if you leave the leather in direct sunlight it will strip the colour from the area exposed. I left a bag I had made in the sun without realising and the area in direct line of the sun went almost anaemic looking. As only part of the bag was in the sun, I had a triangle shape which had a lack of colour which made me gasp, this is back when I was learning. But the colour started to come back and it darkened with a lovely rich tone.

  • Warmth of your touch: every time you touch the leather, the warmth from you hand will add to the ageing process and patina. This leather is affected by different temperatures.

  • Scratches: if you bring a sharp object against it, it will take on the scratch. If you scratch your nails against the surface, it will mark. This is part and parcel of using this leather.

  • Smaller colour palette and not as vibrant: Vegetable tanned leather tends to have a more limited colour palette which have more muted tones.

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Want a leather that doesn’t change?

If you want the leather to stay how you bought it or to have a bright colour then you need to buy an article made from chrome tanned leather. Chrome tanning ‘fixes’ the leather so you don’t get any variations with it. The down side of this leather, if sustainable practices are important is, it does involve chemicals in the process. Chrome tanning tanneries too are bigger and more mechanised so the handmade traditional feel is not there when making.

Different types of vegetable tanned leather

Vegetable tanned leather does vary as to what tanneries & regions it comes from, what animal is used and what part of the skin is tanned. My main experience and knowledge so far is of Italian vegetable tanned leather from Tuscany and English Bridle Leather.

I’ll go into further detail on separate blog posts.