With tanning being such an ancient and essential industry it is to be found in most countries in the world. The slaughter and butchering of animals and the once smelly business of tanning meant that tanners tend to be localized in distinct areas, and indeed this clustering is now viewed as an important aspect for innovation and advanced evolution of strong industries. Nice to know that Santa Croce and Arzignano are the real precursors of Silicone valley; just as we know that the Leather Town part of Boston is the 21st century silicone centre of that town. Lately Twitter keeps saying that Silicone Valley itself was once a tanning centre, but despite many requests no one has responded with evidence.
While some of the tanning towns still survive many are more important for their history than their present. This section starts to look at all the locations that are and have been important for the industry, and we expect it to steadily grow. Contributions are welcome.
Tanning centre in Portugal. I used to stay in Fatima when I travelled there. In October 2010 the CTCP tell me the industry that remains there is doing OK and that footwear in Portugal should have a very good year. Alcanena retains some significant highly advanced tanneries and has to be noted as a significant place for the production of volumes high quality leather. October 2015 saw the EU industry meeting in Alcanena to discuss the future of the European leather industry
North of Chennai (Madras) in India. Famous for Buffalo calf skins, initially exported as EI material, now coming out as finished leather and even more as shoes or leather goods.
Northern Italy, bovine centre between Milan and Venice. Very strong for upholstery leathers and machinery manufacture. Remains a location of major importance for the world leather industry.
Tanning Centre in London; still home to some clothing leather trading. Was a major tanning area and home for the British Leather Federation and the Leathersellers College, both of which moved to Northampton. if you walk around the area, which is now being developed into housing and retail in the main, you will find many of the old building names and street names are from the days of the leather industry which really only relinquished the area in the 1980s. At the start of 2015 ILM Magazine (International Leather Maker) took over an office in the old Leather Exchange.
The industry began in Bermondsey back in the 12th and 13th century when the butchers were allowed to leave their hides here. There were oak forests, and this oak bark, nearby and water so a tanning industry began Being across the river from the town and to the east the laws were not so strict and prevailing wind took the smell well away from the business and housing areas of London. After the fire of London in 1666 all the tanners who had still been in the city were moved to Bermondsey and it grew to be a major UK centre for leather. As tanneries began to move more into the regions in the early 20th century all the major groups kept a plant in Bermondsey, until the 1970s or 1980s.
Tanning town in The Netherlands which held the largest concentration of tanneries from the 1860s to the end of the 20th century. The last downtown tannery with wet working closed in December 2001/January 2002 and moved to nearby Tilburg. The area still contains many tanneries in 2002, many centred around the former Corle wet blue operation now owned by ECCO. In 2002 ECCO made Dongen their global leather HQ and Research Centre. This is in a new industrial area outside Dongen. Tilburg, Waalwijk, Reijen and many of the smaller villages also had significant tanning and shoemaking capacity, some of which still remain. It looks like Dongen will remain important for leather for many decades to come. Between 2010 and 2015 ECCO built a finished leather plant next door to the main tannery to meet the needs of some of their European customers
While this is an ancient tannery I do not see why many of the unsafe practices need to continue today, and they only do so because the governmen is unwilling to enforce any health and safety regulations. Apparently the tanners and those making things out of leather provide 100,000 jobs in the informal sector and the government is afraid to interfere. Sadly this leaves a very bad advert for the leather industry.
I visited Fez for the first time in October 2000. The first thing that surprised me is that as well as the famous and touristic tanners quarters, there are other tanneries to be found in Fez. Close to Bab Bou Jeloud Gate, just 200 metres down the hill on the left is a small felmongery. This removes the wool from the local sheep by an overnight pile with a lime sulphide mix on the flesh side. The wool appears to go to the local carpet trade and the skins down the hill to the other tanners.
Now here is the interesting part: if you visit the tanners quarters in the North East of the Old Town (Medina) and you stand on the top of the renovated Museum Nejjarine de Arts and Metiers du Bois, in the middle of town and looked south you will see another little square with skins drying round the walls and wool drying on the roofs. You are looking at a different tannery.
In the famous tanning area you look down on the ancient pits. You can watch the process and will be told all the technology by the people in the leathergoods shop who own the balcony. The process appears to be
1. Liming in pits with lime, a one week process. I did not see the wool being removed, which was probably done behind the drum.
2. Drumming in water, we only saw one drum in the whole of the main complex. They said it was used after liming.
3. Delime in pits
4. Bating with pigeon dung
5. Tanning with Mimosa
a. Red: poppy flower
b. Brown: cedar wood
c. Blue: indigo
d. Green: mint
e. Yellow: grenadine (saffron was considered too expensive) These colours are quite traditional with red being the colour of Fez, green of the Saharan Taureg, and yellow of Marrakech. Guide books say that the green is related to the earth, fertility and healing.
7. Drying, by hanging around the square in the sun, and in upper rooms
8. Staking, in individual upper rooms by hand. Seemed to be one room per colour.
The skins used were sheep and goat mostly, but we understand camel and cattle hides are also tanned. Later someone tried to sell us a poor grade hide of about 30 sq. ft for $50, in a rough tanned state.
Amongst all the big number of pits I did manage to find one with chrome tan in it.
If you make your way down to the pits themselves you get a better impression of what is going on. On the way down we passed another small tannery which was quite complete. It was built inside what was apparently a former Fonduq (or travelling merchants hotel). On the ground floor were the pits and one drum, and these extended even into the ground floor rooms. Here I did see a lime mix which included sulphide, and it looked as though the goat and camel were using a hair burn system. In the upper rooms we found the men softening the leather, and one man staining the leather to enhance the rather poor red colour achieved in the pits.
I did not see any of the chemical preparation, and only discovered the mimosa from a discarded bag in the pits. It was not clear how much water was used, or what happens to the effluent.
They say this tanning has gone on since the 11th century, and except for the choice of vegetable tannin, I suppose you could believe this. Do we really know when bating began, or when different dyestuffs were introduced into the tanning industry?
I was surprised how young some of the workers were, so perhaps the short term means that this will all continue.
It is hard to imagine what the 21st century will bring for this sector. I recommend all who are interested to visit soon, and I wish them all well. It would be interesting to identify the chain of their chemical supply, and where they learned of chromium and how to use it. One imagines that if a way can be found to treat the effluent and improve the employee washing and cleaning facilities, this set up could be allowed to continue for a long time.
A friend who also visited at the same time wrote: There is a collection station outside the wall on the east. There was a parade of mule carts piled with skins heading there from all directions. I did not enter but I saw them trading the skins. As a souvenir I bought a book cover on the balcony. It is made from the worst smelling leather I have ever experienced (perhaps the pigeon droppings?) and I can’t even keep it in my office. This must be a real disadvantage to their sales. I was told several times that the yellow was from saffron (probably a distortion for tourists). I was told the black was coloured with kohl (as used in their eye makeup) and when they make white it is with limestone dust and pigeon droppings. I was told that the boys treading in the colour vats can only work in each color for two days or their legs will be coloured. Another myth for tourists? Regarding the wool, I was told that there is a vast difference in value of the “dead wool” from the fellmongery and the live wool sheared from the living sheep. Dead wool is used for utilitarian local carpets and live wool for exports and tourist trade. I visited a big godown selling out of bales of both types. The carpet makers come daily and buy just what they need for the day’s production (even make their own yarns and dye them). In the High Atlas we visited a travelling Berber market. They were slaughtering sheep in the market all morning and had sold everything by mid-afternoon (skins and all). The rows of clear eyed goat heads (a great delicacy for soup) lining the ground all along both sides at the meat market are quite disconcerting.”
Oasis town in Libya near the Algerian and Tunisian borders. Major junction on ancient Saharan trade routes. Famous for its pure white alum tanned hairsheep, and the ornamented leather produced from it by the “guadamecileros”. This involved embossing, punching and gilding to create beautiful effects. The technology moved in the 8th and 9th centuries to Cordoba in Spain. The pure white was added to with a brilliant red made from madder. (See World Leather June/July 2001 and the web site of Jorge Centofanti -www.jorgecentofanti.tripod.com – who is a modern day Guadamici artist. Foundation of the famous Dutch and English guilded wall hanging work for large houses in 17th and 18th century. France (Doreurs sur Cuir) and Venice were also famous for guilded wall hangings.
Upstate New York. Centre of sheepskin tanning and glove making. Really strong in the 19th century, and fell away in the 1940s and 50s. Still has a very small number of tanneries making glove leather from hairsheep, and a number processing deerskin on a seasonal basis. As of 2000 there was also a large side leather crust finishing plant along with a significant grouping of important glove importers. Driving along the Mass Pike you see a number of signs to the Leather Valley area which includes Johnstown and Amsterdam. An interesting museum for the gloving industry
Mexico. I have commented on this town in the section on Leon
Small skin centre in southern France.
Just south of Osaka in Japan is a famous Japanese tanning centre. Himeji is most well known today for its castle, but as you take the train through you still the tanneries by the track with the old drums packed near the fencing. Home of an important leather Research Institute. Tanning started there about 500 to 600 AD probably with technology brought in from China via Korea. The river contains aluminium from upstream deposits so hides and skins kept in the river for cleaning and soaking end up with a mild pure white alum tannage. Rape seed oil and rice husks are also traditionally used.
Near Barcelona in Spain. Quite a lot of vegetable tanning, and the base of an in interesting tanning sector. Some fine vegetable tanners are still based there. Has a wonderful museum and a good leather school.
I first went to Kano in the late eighties (the picture is from that time) and there found the delights of the tanneries in the old centre. Here they were vegetable tanning in pits goat, sheep and reptiles, with a bran drench apparently replacing a traditional bate. This is an industry which has been here for many centuries. The city was selected as a Hausa Capital in 1095, and walls were built in the 12th century. In the last fifty years of the twentieth century a lot of famous tanneries have been built in Kano, which is a major centre for sheep and goat. The Booths were involvedin building and managing Great Northern Tannery here but the ownership of the major tanneries has changed quite a bit in the 1990s and 2000s. Sadly the 21st century has raised all sorts of tribal and religious issues, many born out of corruption denying the north of Nigeria the development funds it has so much needed. I took the picture in the 1980s.
Kasur (also spelt Kasoor)
Near Lahore in Pakistan, a 200 year old tanning centre which in 2001 was still trying to resolve effluent problems with the help of UNIDO. Kasoor tanners make from the raw and sell quite large amounts to Karachi and Sialkot tanners in wet blue. If it finishes off its treatment plant with some tertiary treatment and cleans up I can see the potential for tis becoming a tremendous creative leather centre for the world. Boutique tanneries, with some significant international plants, hand crafted clothing, footwear and leathergoods along with associated design centres and training could provide a wonderful development for this small town. This would stay true to its heritage and skills.
I had a really interesting trip to Leon in October 2010. Quite a change since my first visit in 1974. Leon defines itself as a capital of footwear and certainly the level of production and importance to the community makes it so. There is also a huge tanning industry which has further developed based on local and US hides for the automobile trade. With a huge GM factory just down the road and others like VW also making in Mexico this is a big growth sector and has allowed the tanning industry to modernise.
The footwear industry is a mix of what might be called classic manufacture and some ultramodern plants like Flexi with a capability to do well on the international market. Mexico is a market of 110 million who consumer about 2.7 pairs per capita per annum. The shoe industry has been largely protected from imports for the last few decades and in the older plants this shows. They will struggle to compete when the market opens up. The local industry is really well served by a large and very competent research and training organisation CIATEC, with outstanding facilities and very sound management.
Just 100 or so kilometres away is Guadalajara which is another, but much smaller, traditional tanning and footwear centre.
Sheepskin centre in southern France. Famous for its Mazamet Slats, which were sheepskins with the wool removed by sweating, which maximizes the value of the wool, but does not do a lot of good for the skins. The sheep were subsequently vegetable tanned.
Glove centre in southern France with a fine glove museum. Has a great slide show on French tanning and glove making. With the new bridge – Viaduc de Millau – this is one place well worth a visit. Gloving remains really important and there are both tanneries and glove factories present. A new glove factory was built a few years ago for Causse, who are now owned by Chanel (see pictures here). A lovely town in a great location and well worth a visit. The Causse factory involves a large display area well worth seeing and yu can go in and watch some of the gloves being made also. Don’t go in January, though: it is cold and all the restaurants are shut.
Famous tanning town in southern China, near to Guangzhou. When I first visited our guide told us that tanning had been important here for over 1000 years. Prime tanning Joint venture in China (now owned by shoemaker Pou Chen) was set up with Nanhai Mimosa Leathers.
Sheepskin tanning centre in Italy. Tanning Research Institute founded in 1885.
Northampton and Irthlingborough
A tanning and shoemaking centre in middle England. Tanning ended there in the 1990’s when Pittards moved out so Griggs could extend and control the land next to their soccer ground – home of Rushden and Diamonds. Blenkinsops still dress leathers in their tannery. In 2000 Griggs Doc Martins shoes and Church’s shoes were still made there but by 2010 Griggs had moved their production overseas.. Home of the BLC, and the British School of Leather Technology at the University College Northampton (formerly Nene College). In 2010 the BSLT united with other leather associted areas in the University to form the Institute for Creative Leather Technologies (ICLT).
There are still over 100 leather and footwear companies, large and small, in greater Northampton and these are listed in the trade directory on Northamptonshireleather.com. This has been largely overtaken by http://www.international-footwear-foundation.co.uk/ which is the IFF, whose main function is to run a conference once a year, but by 2015 appeared defunct. But the list is still there.
Bovine tanning centre in Massachusetts, USA. On the north shore, close to Salem. Grew and declined in parallel with Salem. Some of the best tanneries – such as AC Lawrence – were converted into apartments. This whole area used to really fascinate me when I was a young executive and I was pleased to have the opportunity to visit in the seventies when I was buying wet blue for ADOC in El Salvador. I remember staying in the Ritz Carlton in Boston and being picked up to be taken to a variety of “north shore” tanneries.
Much of the following information comes from the George Peabody House Museum, where I had an excellent visit in October 2000, with thanks to the Curator, Rebecca Larsen.
Peabody itself changed its name to be called after one of its greatest sons and benefactors, George Peabody, who actually made most his wealth in the UK as a co-founder of JP Morgan. George Peabody is credited as the founder of American philanthropy. His Trust still provides a lot of help and housing in London and there is a web site related to this work. He was born in 1795 and his father was a tanner.
Tanning began in Peabody in 1660 and had become the dominant industry by the 1840’s. It was at this time that the US Railways began and this was a big help to the industry. The records indicate that in 1825 Peabody had 3500 tanning vats. There were seven streams running through the town although today they are all buried underground and these supplied the needed water supply, and local bark was used for tanning. By 1855 there were 27 tanneries, 24 currying shops, 13 Moroccan (goatskin) and lining shops and one patent leather shop. The industry was helped by demand at the time of the American Civil War, but suffered from changes in fashion and technology in the 1870s and 80s. In 1886 the workers went on strike for better pay and shorter hours.
AC Lawrence was founded in 1894 and the employees from the early days noted that this was seasonal work with white leather made for four months for summer shoes and darker leather made for winter footwear, again with a four-month working period. So the workers had to budget for two two-month lay-offs. However, by 1914 Peabody and Philadelphia were classed as the largest leather producers on the East Coast of the US. In 1933 the workers went on strike again in order to obtain Union recognition.
But since then it has all been difficult. Many people remember 100 tanneries in Peabody yet in 2000 only a few plants remain. As of 2002 Peabody still is the home of two cowhide split tanners, Bond Leather and Travel Leather along with one leather finisher. Travel Leather Company is the largest remaining split tanner in the North America. Also in Salem there are two tanneries, Salem Suede and a small split tanner named Mason Tanning.
Tanning centre outside Madras.
Town in southern Germany near Stuttgart. Famous for textiles and leather tanning, and the home since 1954 of a famous Leather School whch sadly closed shortly into the 21st century. Other towns in the area which were famous for tanning were Backnang, Murrhardt, and Ulm.
Sheepskin tanning centre In Massachusetts USA where tanning first began in 1627. Most important in 19th and 20th centuries, falling into decline in the 1970’s onwards. In 2000 only one tannery – Salem Suede – remained in business.
Santa Croce Sul Arno
After the tanners were thrown out of Florence they moved down the Arno to set up the world’s most famous tanning centre by far – Santa Croce Sull Arno. I worked there in the 1970’s for the then famous Rosati Group. This evolved into the Gruppo David in the 1980’s and dissolved in the 1990’s. When we were there S.Croce had about 400 tanneries although not all were complete. There were many specialist small houses just doing processes such as shaving, vacuum drying, toggling, or printing. It made it quite hard to decide what a tannery really was or needs to be. It did show the value of clusters in industry with easy access to spare, chemicals and all the bits and pieces you might ever need. The competition, also, was intense, so that some great leathergoods and footwear leathers were developed. In the 1970’s S.Croce led the fashion element that drove the world’s tanning industry. So much so that it led the UK tanning group, Pittards, to create a knocking campaign with the tag line “Arrivederci S.Croce”.
The famous centre for soccer ball manufacture in Pakistan. Started making balls at the request of British Garrison in the 19th century (Sialkot still has its cathedral). Local tanners and makers built an industry out of it. Also an important centre for the manufacture of sports gloves. Tanners mostly work from the wet blue. This is one area which badly needs a decent effluent treatment plant. It has the wealth and the skills but needs to actually take action.
Sheepskin tanning centre near Naples in Italy.
Tanning centre in Turkey.
Ancient tanning town in Southern Germany. Has old leather quarter with old tanneries and the Gerber Haus is now a restaurant. Unhairing was an enzyme, sweating like process over the river. Sector includes a little old hotel with slopping floors which hangs over the river.
Sheepskin tanning centre north of Madras. The place in India to get garments and gloves.
In the 15th century Venice had a flourishing leather industry.
Tanning centre just north west of Barcelona in Spain. Mostly famous for tanning of sheep and goat and of course where the Colomer group began tanning in 1872.