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Leather comes from a variety of origins and is versatile as regards its uses.

Any animal hide can be used for making leather. Most of the skins that are processed around the world are food industry ‘waste products’ from cattle, calves, sheep, goats, pigs and horses. However, the fashion industry uses skins of exotic animals like crocodiles, antelopes, kangaroos, ostriches, various species of fish such as eel or ray, and also snakes.

The original skin plays a big part in determining the subsequent quality of the leather. Good animal husbandry and a climate conducive to health give the raw material a better quality than mass stock-keeping in narrow pens. It’s the animal’s natural origin that makes the leather obtained from it so distinctive, so individual, so special.

How exactly is the raw animal hide turned into leather?

Here is a written description of the various steps involved in the production process for anyone not wishing to see the exact details:

Image rights: LCK_Gmelich

First of all, the skin has to be washed and any dung and dirt must be removed. Then the skin is ‘limed.’ This removes the hair and relaxes the collagen structure of the skin.

The flesh, fat and connective tissue residues are scraped off. This job is done by a special ‘fleshing machine’.

The skin then goes through a variety of operations in which it undergoes biochemical processes like deliming, bating and pickling in readiness for the actual tanning.

Only then does the actual tanning take place, i.e., converting the still-raw hide into durable leather. The skin is treated with appropriate tanning agents according to the chosen method (vegetable / mineral / synthetic tanning).

Vegetable tanning uses agents obtained from oak bark or spruce bark. Mineral tanning mainly uses chromium salts or aluminium salts. Nowadays, the tanning process is carried out in large, rotating tanning pits or barrels.

By now, the leather has been tanned and wrung, but it still has to go through a couple of final operations. It is split (if it is too thick), dyed an attractive colour and stuffed. During barrel dyeing the soluble dyestuffs bind firmly to the leather structure and thus penetrate all the way through the leather.

Now the leather has to be dried thoroughly, after which it is quite stiff to the touch. To achieve the desired suppleness the leather is softened up by mechanical treatment (‘milling and staking’). In the past, the leather would then be worked by hand to soften it, but fortunately nowadays this work is done by special machines and milling barrels.

In the final operation the leather is dressed for its intended use - that’s why this step is called dressing. In the course of this the leather acquires a few more permanent properties, its attractive appearance and special (fashion) finish.At this time the surface of the leather is skilfully touched up and any damaged areas, such as scars, are neatly covered. In the case of defective leathers, for example, a thick coat of additional dye is applied and the leather structure is then impressed with an embossing roller (as the original skin structure has disappeared under the coat of dye).

Finally, the ‘conditioned’ surface is treated with a water- and stain-repellent guard. Dressing thus comprises all the steps that make leather valuable for subsequent industrial processing.


We thank Gmelich Tannery for giving us the opportunity to look over the tanners's shoulders as they go about their work and capture it all on film. »» www.gmelich.de

But leather is not made in such a progressive, mechanised and environmentally conscious way all over the world as it is at our German tanneries. In Marrakech, Morocco, for example leather is still made out of doors to this day, under the most basic conditions. Because of the unpleasant smells and environmental pollution created, the tanners’ quarter is located outside the city centre and tourists venturing into this area are likely to think twice before buying Moroccan leather goods in the souk...


              Marrakesh   Image rights: LCK



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