Eco-Friendly Manufacturing: Using Vegetable Tanned Leather

Wondering how to get that perfect, broken-in leather look you’ve been seeing all over Instagram? The little-known technique of vegetable tanning is the insider secret behind the style. We spoke with vegetable leather manufacturers and tanning experts Pergamena and Californian brand Friday & River to learn the ins and outs of the vegetable tanning process, and how it gives your designs an eco-friendly edge.

What is Vegetable Tanning?

Tanning is the process of turning animal hides into a durable, strong and versatile material that won’t degrade or break down over time. Compared to the chrome tanning process—which uses heavy metals to tan hides—vegetable tanning uses plant extracts to naturally create leathers with a varying range of texture, temper, strength, and softness.

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Why Did You Choose Vegetable Tanning to Create Your Products?

Friday & River: “We chose to primarily use vegetable tanned leather for Friday & River for a few very simple reasons. The tanning process is more environmentally friendly than chrome-tanned leathers. We find it to be more versatile for the types of products we make, and we were particularly drawn to the beautiful way that natural vegetable-tanned leather darkens and ages over time, making each piece special and unique to the individual user.

Pergamena: “Compared to the chrome process, vegetable tanning yields a leather that will age and wear, developing a unique patina based on how each person uses the finished good. It also helps to accentuate the natural character and grain of each animal type, something that is almost always artificially created in chrome leather.”

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How Do You Innovate With Vegetable Tanned Leather?

Friday & River: “Vegetable tanned leather is incredibly versatile; we use it exclusively when items require casing or dying. Uniquely dyed pieces, such as our Earth & Sky collection, are a long-time cornerstone of Friday & River’s product line, and no leather could give us the results we’re looking for other than natural vegetable tanned leather.”

Pergamena: “Vegetable tanning is a very versatile process, and as a small tannery, we have the flexibility to work on unique or custom projects when they’re brought to us. This has given us the opportunity to produce veg-tan leather with a number of different types of hides, including the cowhides from local farms for Marlow Goods, as well as alpaca, bison, and hair sheep.”

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How Are Eco-Friendly Products Being Used Today?

Friday & River: “In general, it seems that when designers learn more about the process behind the materials they use it influences not only their practical functional design decisions, but the possible deeper social impact of using those materials. There is more focus on the social impact of all aspects of our lives than ever before, so it’s only natural that it would have a significant influence on product design, especially in the independent maker movement.”

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Pergamena On The Advantages of Vegetable Tanning

  1. Compared to the chrome tanning process, vegetable tanning yields a leather that will age and wear, developing a unique patina based on how each person uses the finished good.
  2. The process accentuates the natural character and grain of each animal type, something that is almost always artificially created in chrome leather.
  3. Not only is vegetable tanning a much more environmentally-responsible process than chrome, but it also produces an archival leather that is designed to last for centuries, perfect for designers and craftspeople looking to create long-lasting heirloom goods.
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Ready to add an edge to your production process? Learn more about the vegetable tanning process and how to build your leather supply chain by enrolling in the Maker’s Row Academy Sourcing 101 E-Course (it’s free).

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