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History of leather

The short version of a long story

The art of leather-making – i.e. the preservation of animal hides – is as old as humanity itself. 

It is hard to say when and why man thought of making leather and using it to his advantage.  Quite possibly, it was the hunter-gatherers who wanted to use as much of an animal as possible. How our distant ancestors learnt to tan animal skins and make them last longer was probably a long process with lots of coincidental findings. If they just left the animal skin to dry, it turned as hard as stone. If they left it moist, it rotted. But at some point, they learnt that treating animal skins with natural products such as tree rinds or aIum stone turned them into soft, durable leather.

steinzeit

Or they chewed the animal skin, and softened it with oils and fats. Which is a method that is still practised by the Inuit today.

Other cave-dwellers hung animals skins over the opening to their caves for protection, and discovered (probably by chance) that the smoke from their campfires made the skins soft and durable.

Whatever it was, the skill of making leather, that is the preservation of animal skins, is as old as humanity itself.

Even our oldest ancestors were able to make leather, and they used it as protective clothing, as tent panels, water containers and boats, and much more.

 

 

Ägypten

We know from scenes on a sarcophagus depicting scenes with tanners that plants were used for tanning in Ancient Egpyt in the fourth millennium BC. And (alum-tanned) leather in a good condition was found in Tutankhamun's tomb.

The tanner was held in high regard in those days, as leather goods were considered extremely valuable. For instance, Egyptians of higher social standing wore leather sandals.

Even in the Stone and Bronze Ages, people were wearing items of clothing made from various types of leather. Even the well-known glacier mummy Ötzi, an impressive 5300 years old, was wearing a leather belt and loincloth:

     
the belt worn by the "ice man" consists of a 4-5 cm wide strip of calfskin. It had been wrapped twice around his hips and knotted. A sewn-on leather band formed a belt bag, the opening of which was secured with a narrow strip of leather.

The loincloth is a square, 33 cm wide piece of leather made of narrow strips of goatskin.

The inner shoe - a net of grass string - secures the hay stuffed inside it, which was used as heat insulation. The outer shoe is made of deerskin. Both items are attached to the sides of the oval soles, made of bearskin, by leather straps. Unlike the leather of the sole, the upper was worn with the hair side on the outside.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Source: South Tyrolean Museum of Archaeology

Or let us think of the equipment worn by the legionnaires in the days of the Roman Empire, which also incorporated many items made of leather. Carthage was an important trading centre between the markets of North Africa and the Mediterranean at the time, and had the monopoly on leather trading in Europe and the Mediterranean. New tanning methods were developed in the Roman Empire, and leather items produced more easily. This meant that even ordinary people could afford leather sandals.

In the Middle Ages, the tanning industry in the Near East and North Africa was far ahead of Europe. We know from reports by Marco Polo when he returned from Asia of that area's art of leather production - thus, for instance, of a grandson of Genghis Khan, who lived in an ermine-covered leather tent and wore gold-plated leather clothing. European manufacturing methods started to improve in the Middle Ages. At the time, the tanner's work consisted of hard physical labour. Tanneries were usually situated beside rivers or streams where the skins were processed. Spending hours in cold water, having to drag around the heavy skins and the constant stench were key features of the profession - and ruined the tanners' health. If you have seen the film "Perfume", you will probably be able to picture the tanners' life at the time.

Gerberei1880

There was a marked increase in the number of tanners at the beginning of the 17th century, when the profession, which had hitherto been limited to the major towns, started to spread throughout the countryside.

After 1750, when major industries and manufactories were created, the European approached leather production scientifically in order to optimise the tanning methods.

With the invention of industrial chrome tanning at the end of the 19th century, they finally managed to make extremely soft, durable leathers that also dyed well.

 

Leather remains popular as an elegant natural material to this day. Whether upholstered furniture, car seats, clothing, accessories or almost anything else, it is impossible to imagine life without leather.

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