What is Vegetable Tanned Leather? – A Comprehensive Guide

Tanning is one necessary step for refining leather, as it helps prevent the hide from putrefying and rotting. You would often find different tanning types, which further classify the different varieties of leather. But vegetable-tanned leather is one unique choice known for its firm, thick, and durable nature.

Vegetable-tanned leather is one luxurious material that has several distinctive features. This type of leather is subjected to vegetable tanning, the oldest form of tannage – a refining process that gives the leather its intriguing properties.

Despite its popularity, some people know little or nothing about vegetable-tanned leather; fun fact, you must have invested in such leather products in the past without an iota of knowledge about its refining process. Not to worry, this guide contains everything you should know about vegetable-tanned leather.

what is vegetable tanned leather made of

What Is Vegetable Tanned Leather?

Vegetable-tanned leather refers to leather that has gone through “vegetable tanning,” which means that the leather has been treated with tannin-rich plant extracts. It is a thick leather characterized by its robust and natural finish – you would find the hide’s natural fibers visible on the finished product.

Thanks to the gentle treatment this leather hide undergoes, it has a soft, comfortable feel and a long lifespan. This type of leather has been used for centuries in making several leather items.

Every leather item crafted from this vegetable-tanned leather has an unmistakable appearance, with distinctive features including its thickness, earthy smell, and silky feel. It is pretty durable and develops a rich-colored patina as it ages.

What is vegetable-tanned leather made of? This type of leather is sourced from the hides of animals, primarily sheep and cows. Also, you can find various grades of top-grain and full-grain vegetable-tanned leather.

Vegetable Tanned Leather Explained

Tanning is a process of exposing raw animal hides to specific solutions that makes them free from bacteria that could cause rot. Kindly note that there are two significant types of tanning; vegetable tanning and chrome tanning.

Vegetable-tanned leather is subjected to a tanning procedure that uses natural plant extracts, while chrome-tanned leather substitutes such natural solution by employing salts (mostly chromium di-sulfate).

Some tree species from which the tanning extracts are sourced include Oak, Willow, Chestnut, Mimosa, Birch, and Catechu. Vegetable-tanned leather goes through a process that occurs in five significant steps.

Sourcing the leather Hides

This step remains the most significant of all since you need the raw animal hide before moving forward to tanning. After the slaughtering of animals, the hides are removed with the aid of special machines.

It is imperative to note that hides are byproducts, and animals are not killed solely for their skins – the hides are often collected from animals slaughtered for food. Now, the sourced leather hide is taken to a section of the slaughterhouse or a separate building known as the “tannery.”

Pre-treatment

The hair and fats are removed at the tannery using a few simple procedures. However, the rawhide is first salted for preservation purposes. When the leather is not moist and left unsalted, it starts rotting, which leaves the grain destroyed and causes irreparable damage.

After salting, the leather undergoes liming, where the animal skin is soaked in a lime solution for about 24 hours. This solution is quite potent and can quickly burn off the hairs on the animal’s skin.

After that, whatever hairs and fats are left are removed using a metal tool or machine. To lower the leather’s pH level, the hide is now subjected to “rinsing.” The rinsing process involves spraying the de-haired hide with a specific substance.

The “Proper” Tanning

Tanners often blend tannin extracts from plants according to their choice of color, feel, and strength of the final product. In the main tanning, the pre-treated hides are placed in barrels, tubs, or vats and submerged in a solution of the tanning agents and water.

Then, the hide is allowed to soak, and for vegetable tanning, this could take several months. The hide’s physical properties change as it absorbs these tanning agents.

Drying, Hot-stuffing, and Dyeing

Vegetable-tanned leather can be dyed in different colors. However, leather artisans always condition the tanned hide to enhance its natural color. The hide is removed from the tanning solution, waxed and oiled, and then left to dry away from direct heat. Such an action improves the leather’s durability and makes it suppler.

Following a unique procedure, the hide may be hot-stuffed, and this process stuffs the leather core with tallows and waxes that also increases the leather’s durability and leaves a rich color. Once done, dry the hide and stake it to soften it further.

Finishing

The final step is to seal the leather to help preserve its color for an extended period and protect it from likely damages that could occur due to exposure to the environment. Most leather experts spray refined vegetable-tanned leather with moisture and scratch-resistant solutions to further ensure the piece remains in pristine condition.

Also, the leather gets stretched and trimmed to transform into finished leather products.

Note: This leather can be dyed in several colors, retanned, and even greased (a process termed “fatliquoring”), depending on the final product and the artisan’s choice. You can employ such procedures to make the vegetable-tanned leather colorful, more elastic, and flexible and increase its softness.

History of Vegetable-tanned Leather

Vegetable-tanned leather dates back to the primeval times when humans worked on transforming animal skins into clothing and several other crafts. However, the vegetable tanning procedure is traced to over 5000 years ago. And it is believed to have begun with the Ancient Egyptians.

This tanning method emerged as a result of a man discovering the fantastic results of raw hides having close contact with the leaves, trunks, and barks of trees. Although a conventional process, vegetable tanning is one artisanal skill passed down several generations.

Kindly note that the vegetable tanning procedure underwent several modifications over the years, and the Romans regulated the industry. These orthodox recipes have been modified, and modern vegetable tanning is done with state-of-the-art technologies.

Vegetable-tanned Leather Products

You would find various items made from vegetable-tanned leather on amazon and other stores. From vegetable-tanned leather shoes to various clothing items and upholstery pieces. With that in mind, some of the items produced from vegetable-tanned leather include:

  • Holsters
  • Saddles, bags
  • Wallets
  • Purses
  • Knife sheaths
  • Car seat coverings
  • Sandals and other footwear

Pros of Vegetable Tanned Leather

Vegetable-tanned leather has several features, and its production process seems to be the most environmental-friendly option compared to chemical tanning. Thus, there are various reasons why you should invest in a vegetable-tanned leather wallet, belt, or footwear.

Vegetable-tanned leather is robust and sturdy and can last a lifetime if properly maintained. Another thing is its rich, natural, and earthy color tones that come from the hide tannin absorption.

What’s more, this leather develops an enthralling ‘patina’ following exposure to several environmental factors and constant use. Such color variation indicates the high aesthetic beauty of the leather and further enhances its value.

Finally, this type of leather doesn’t need any synthetic coating, which further increases its breathability. Hence, vegetable-tanned leather jackets, belts, and shoes are very comfy and cozy to the skin.

Cons Vegetable Tanned Leather

Although vegetable-tanned leather has vast excellent properties, it is not without its drawbacks. And even though the merits of this leather type outweigh its demerits, it is essential to learn about its few flaws to ensure you make a deliberated decision.

First, vegetable-tanned leather is costly, and its high price tags are due to the extended production time of the leather. When accosted with vegetable-tanned leather vs. chrome-tanned leather production comparison, know that the former could take up to months and the latter could be completed within a day.

While the production process of veg-tanned leather is environmentally friendly, it consumes a lot of water. Also, vegetable-tanned leather appears stiff and stretches less; hence, unsuitable for certain applications.

So, if you need very soft and elastic leather, you should look for other options. Furthermore, the color variation on the finished leather may not be suitable for applications requiring a lasting uniform color appearance.

what is vegetable tanning

How Do You Care For Vegetable Tan Leather?

A good leather care routine is essential in keeping such items in pristine condition. And since vegetable-tanned leather products are expensive, it is crucial to care for them properly and extend their lifespan.

Here you find some helpful tips to help maintain your veg-tanned leather and keep it looking its best.

  1. Try to prevent moisture contact with your veg-tanned leather as much as possible, especially within the first month after purchase.
  2. Never subject your leather to heat or direct light; this could cause severe damage. So, be sure to dry leather in a cool area, away from heat.
  3. Be sure to clean your vegetable-tanned leather, as an accumulation of dirt and debris can deteriorate the condition of the piece.
  4. Applying a generous amount of leather conditioner on several occasions would help replenish likely stripped oils and keep the leather in good condition.
  5. Avoid synthetic bristles, which can leave scuffs and scratches on the leather surface. You can get soft natural-bristled brushes or a microfiber cloth for cleaning the leather.

How Do You Clean Vegetable Tan Leather?

Stains are inevitable, and you may notice slight dust specks or greasy stains following the everyday use of your vegetable-tanned leather items. Thus, knowing how to clean vegetable-tanned leather is necessary. For proper leather cleaning, you would need the following materials.

  • Leather cleaner
  • Microfiber towel
  • Warm water
  • Leather conditioner
  • Leather sealant spray

After gathering your cleaning supplies, you can follow the below steps to clean your vegetable-tanned leather.

  1. Mix some leather cleaner or mild dishwashing soap in a bowl with warm water.
  2. Damp the microfiber towel with the solution and start wiping the leather surface in small, circular motions.
  3. Once done, dry the leather piece in a well-ventilated area, free from heat.
  4. After the leather item dries, condition it using a suitable conditioner for vegetable-tanned leather.
  5. Also, get a sealant spray that would keep the leather resistant to moisture and scratches.
  6. Store away the leather in an appropriate storage area; it should be less humid and free from heat.

Be sure to learn how to rid of stains from leather to help tackle tough-to-remove discolorations.

FAQs

Q: Is vegetable-tanned leather real leather?

Vegetable-tanned leather is genuine since it is made from the raw hides of animals. The animal’s skin goes through a refining process called tanning, removing moisture from the hide’s collagen and preventing rotting.

In this process, the animal hide is pre-treated and soaked in a bath or tub of a solution of natural plant extracts and water. The tannin-rich solution gives vegetable-tanned leather its characteristic earthy color and smell and makes it durable and robust.

Q: Is vegetable-tanned leather high quality?

Vegetable-tanned leather is of excellent quality, often made from the finest animal hides and thoroughly cured. The excellent tanning process of the leather makes such pieces one of the most durable options available.

You would find vegetable-tanned leather across various grades of full-grain and top-grain leather. This leather type is thick, has a characteristic smooth feel, and develops a fine patina over a long period. Thus, you can find high-end vegetable-tanned leather shoes, clothes, belts, and furniture pieces.

Q: Why is it called vegetable-tanned leather?

Vegetable-tanned leather is so-termed from its tanning process – vegetable tanning. Kindly note that vegetable tanning is a curing method that uses tannin-rich extracts from the bark, leaves, and trunks of trees.

Unlike oil or chrome tanning, vegetable tanning is environmental-friendly and produces thick leather that withstands everyday use. Although expensive, vegetable-tanned leather products are long-lasting, attractive, and luxurious.

Q: Why is vegetable-tanned leather so expensive?

The main reason vegetable-tanned leather is very costly is its long production time. Comparing vegetable-tanned leather vs. chrome leather, the former spend a longer time at the tannery. The average time for vegetable tanning is usually 1-2 months, whereas chrome tanning can be done within 24 hours.

Despite how time-consuming the refining process on the hide takes of how costly this leather may be, veg-tanned leather is one of the best you can find. Natural tanning gives the leather a study and attractive feature. So, you wouldn’t regret investing in vegetable-tanned leather bags, clothing, or similar items.

Q: Is vegetable-tanned leather waterproof?

Vegetable-tanned leather is not resistant to water, and even the slightest splash could leave a stain or mark on an unfinished piece. Such water stains can get into the leather fibers and cause severe damage.

Nevertheless, applying a moisture-resistant spray can make your vegetable-tanned leather waterproof. There are many such products in leather craft stores, and you can get one suitable for vegetable-tanned leather.

Final Words

Vegetable tanning is an ancient method of curing leather, and this procedure employs tannin-rich plant extracts. Over the years, this tanning method has been modified and remains prominent amongst the various tanning types available.

Thanks to the magnificent tanning method, vegetable-tanned leather is strong, durable, thick, and can always withstand rugged applications. It has an attractive natural color and can also be dyed in varying colors. This article is an all-exclusive guide that exposes you to everything about vegetable-tanned leather.

Evina Naomi

Ewofere, Evina Naomi is a biotechnologist and passionate content writer. As a great lover of leather and various leather crafts, she broadly addresses leather-related issues. She is a writer of many excellent articles on leather. With great knowledge and enthusiasm, readers can access researched pieces on various leather types and the best techniques that work on them. Naomi is here to lead you through the journey of choosing excellent leather products and ensure you handle them rightly. So you can embark on your leather sewing and crafting journey with her and have an incredible experience.

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