Updated: Dec 9, 2020
On a recent trip to a local tannery, I was moved to write this blog as a way to process and share my experience. But here's a little about me first.....
I consider myself, and have been called a, purist.
I don't mean to imply that being a purist is angelic or ideal. Actually it is a pain in the ass. And what it means is that what I sell I make, make by hand, typically from things I harvest from the wild, or from dead animal skins. I spend time outdoors as much as possible, which is most of the day, everyday. I draw my inspiration from the wild and work as deeply as I can to tend to my soul, so I may be a conduit for the creativity. Nature is where I source from. She/He/It/They The Earth and the wild or even not so wild is my muse. If it can be made I try to make it and with organic, natural, raw materials. I don't typically buy anything. I make it. For example if I want to make a sheepskin jacket, I first tan the hide of the sheep. And I do so using traditional methods. This makes for a long process, one that is not typically valued as much as could be. Especially in a society where many turn to quick chemical made leather products pumped out into the world and then made ideal by stores such as Costco.
Let's just say if you buy a leather product "new"; shoes, a handbag, wallet, leather jacket, sheepskin, cowhide......anything with leather.....and you buy it from a store, not a maker It was probably made using Chromium. A highly toxic chemical.
This article I recognize is like opening a can of worms, a tornado, a huge ball of yarn unraveling during a time when there are many questions being asked and not a whole lot to hold on to. A conversation about leather touches on such topics as hunting practices, veganism, vegetarianism, locally made, what is organic and what is a chemical and "can it be both" what is natural, what is right and am I doing my best, how to pick up roadkill, right ways to process animals, small scale, family owned, access to quality goods, being a human being RIGHT NOW, and so many things that my mind is sent reeling????
When I tan a hide, be it a deer hide a sheepskin or a fox, I do it by hand, without chemicals. I use a traditional method of hair on hide tanning: a scraper, a beam, organic dish soap, minimal water, a fat - either brains or local organic eggs, my muscles and smoke. This process varies slightly depending on the type of animal but is in the truest sense of the word organic. The raw hides I acquire are considered a waste product, even thrown away and considered trash or"Not worth it"
Thankfully using Chrome tanning methods is illegal in California and there are people like myself using traditional methods of tanning, to tan hides. However the demand is high.......
I am not sure I could make car seats for your car. Or supply leather for a boot company. This is where the art of Vegetable tanning methods come in and I come full circle with my first blog.
New Method, a not so new Vegetable Tannery that has been around since the early 1900's. Located in San Francisco. Using a self proclaimed, organic process. In their words using extremely low amounts of Sulphuric acid, heavy ancient Italian machinery, Mineral spirits and a proprietary blend of oils. Resulting, in a beautiful "organically" made product. On my tour of New Method I saw leopards, grizzly bears, big horn sheep, water buffalo, bison, coyote, lynx as well as others. Mostly what I saw was being shipped by taxidermists for hunters. There were a few longhorns, goats and sheep skins as well.
According to New Method the business is on its way out. According to India chrome tanning is on the rise. If you do your research, you will see there are still some vegetable tanneries out there. For both hair on hide methods and for leather making methods. There are also very small, family owned businesses like Cinder Leather https://www.cinderleather.com
Using ancient methods of bark tanning.
There is also http://www.hermannoakleather.com/about/environmental
We must be informed and educated
#knowyourhidetanner I used this hashtag in recents months to try and help bring awareness to the leather industry. Like #knowyourfarmer, we need to know not only where our food comes from but also our water, our leather, our clothes, and everything we purchase. And understand that unless we ask questions and become educated we will continue to consume in a way that is harmful to the Earth. Where we spend our money makes a difference. Once we start doing this, as well as buying local, quality, slow made goods "Consumerism" will shift. Here let me put it more simply, "stop buying chrome tanned leather". Ask where something was made, who made it and how it got to you.
I am still processing my tour of the tannery. Trying to figure out what it all means.
I appreciate a small scale production and know that it is neccasary to process leather on a larger scale than what I can keep up with, however what is the best method?
At the end of the day, the one thing I know is I am a hide tanner, trying to do my best, with room for improvement. I believe in purchasing from the maker, as local as possible. I believe in natural materials that are naturally dyed. I believe in organic farmers, supporting women owned businesses, good mentoring, and learning how to do it all. In a world full of questions. I recognize that making good decisions in regards to what we buy these days is difficult and is directly linked to our individual access. I drive a car, and have a truck. Although I would prefer to just ride my horse to town.
My hope in writing this article is to support the shifting paradigm towards a more harmonious lifestyle for all of us. Working with animal skins is how I spend most of my time these days and therefore I am thinking about the things that touch on this topic. Which is vast.
If you know me and you are reading this, thank you so much for your time. If you don't know me and you are reading this, I thank you also.With Gratitude Shele Jeanne Jessee