The Real History of Leather
Photo by Adobe Stock/Max Ferrero.
It is ninety degrees in San Antonio when I pull up in front of a block long, windowless building with Hide Drop Off stenciled on the side. I have driven far south of downtown, through a Mexican American district of fruit stands and taco stands, across a set of railroad tracks, and to the end of an eerily empty dead-end road. I am here because Gary Thomas, proprietor of High Plains Sheepskin, has set up a tour for me with the Nugget Company, a tannery from which he orders his sheepskin pelts. Stepping out of the rental car, the stench accosts me—raw, meaty, sour—and I suddenly wonder if I will be able to stomach this. In Marrakesh, I have heard, guides at the medieval tanning pits give tourists mint leaves to stick in their noses to block the smell. I suspect I won’t be so lucky.
The custodian, a sad-looking man my age whose clothes are filthy from the work, peers out from behind the locked gate of the dock. I say the name of the owner, “Colin Wheeler,” and he lets me into a dimly lit warehouse, crowded with pallets piled high with fleeced skins, most of them dyed a pumpkin orange. The smell and heat are even heavier inside, enormous industrial fans blowing them about. On my way to meet Wheeler, another worker passes me pulling a cart with the eviscerated bodies of twenty bobcats, heads attached, flattened and stacked, as if they were costumes a child might try on. I recognize their spotted fur, their tufted ears. Thomas told me that in 1973 there were twenty-four or so sheepskin tanneries operating in the United States. The Nugget Company is one of the only ones left.
The real history of leather is the history of tanning. Untreated animal skins quickly harden, or, if kept humid, rot. Insects and bacteria move in to do their damage. An ancient human technology, the tanning process stops the natural process of death, which is decay. The word tanning comes from the word tannin, a naturally occurring chemical found in bark and leaves of plants. People have used oak, beech, sumac, and chestnut, as well as smoke, ammonia, pigeon excrement, animal brains, marrow, wheatmeal, and salt—anything, it seems, that will enter and biochemically merge with the skin fibers to soften and stabilize them. The Blackfeet might have been so named because the phenol in smoke blackened the buckskin they used for moccasins. The Yupiit collected alder bark, boiling it to use as a tanning agent and a deep red dye.
The Egyptians tawed their goat or pigskins, a method using alum and salt that results in skin that is white and stiff, although tawing does not result in a true leather. (Tawed skin will return to rawhide if soaked in water, as does unsmoked brain-tanned “buckskin.”) The grave of Tutankhamun, who was buried in 1550 BCE, contained alum-tawed sandals; the figures of his enemies, which are engraved on the inner soles so he could trample them, are still perfectly visible. (The outer soles of the more fabulous shoes—the grave contained eighty-one pairs—were unsoiled, perhaps because servants carried Tutankhamun when he wore them.) A large-scale tannery has been discovered under the ruins of the first-century city of Pompeii, as well as in archaeological digs throughout Ireland and England. The tanner’s guild, in fact, is among the oldest guilds in Europe: tanning was the first organized industry of medieval times. In the nineteenth century, manufactured chemicals were introduced as tannins, including chrome alum and chromium sulfate.
Wheeler greets me in his small air-conditioned office, jumping up from his computer to shake my hand. A tall, dark-haired man in his thirties, he wears fashionable thick-framed glasses, jeans, and a red T-shirt and seems open and friendly. Mike, on the other hand, whom he introduces as his general manager, sits, lacing a pair of blue suede shoes and scowling. “Most of our employees have gone home for the day; you should come back Monday when you can see them in action.”
(He clearly sees me as an intruder. Because I am a woman? Because I might be an inspector?) “Do you have rubber boots?” he asks. “Because there’ll be mud and blood and water all over.”
We begin the tour, starting at the shipyard, Wheeler leading me through the overheated rooms with loud fans and damp concrete floors, the floor drains clogged with membranes and hairs, the steel machine edges strung with stringy pasta-colored shreds of skin. The place is clean, but not exactly hygienic. We stop in an open-air back room, stacked with bundles of “raw skins.” Wheeler explains that most of the sheepskin processed in the United States is lambskin, since few people eat mutton anymore. Although two million lambs are harvested annually in the United States, the number has been slowly declining by 2 to 4 percent, mostly because people’s taste for lamb has diminished. The skins have come from the company’s “raw skin procurement facility” (aka “slaughterhouse”) in Colorado. He says in the 1940s and ’50s, when Texans ranched a lot of sheep, his facility had a packing plant attached, but now that oil’s been found, it is hard to find anybody who wants to ranch, let alone work in a tannery, the hottest, smelliest work there is: “Most people last half a day and say, ‘This isn’t for me.’ Those that stay, stay for twenty-five years or more. But they are aging.”
Lamb, by the Nugget Company’s definition, is any animal up to ten months old. Lambs apparently grow larger than I had pictured them; each of these pelts is big enough for a cloak. The bundles are bulldozer-bucket-size, mud-colored and layered like the silt in an archaeological dig, and labeled on the side with a series of numbers that identify up to fifteen grades, according to thickness of skin, number of fibers in the wool, length of it, color, or tears, marks or other wounds. The Nugget Company processes twenty-five thousand lambskins a year. (It also does a side business catering to the local hunters, hence the bobcat skins.) Wheeler says he has just returned from China, where he toured a tannery in Shanghai. There they processed forty-five thousand skins a week.
Raw skins arrive from the Colorado facility sprayed down, salted, and packed to dry so the moisture leaves the skin quickly. A spray of pesticide is sometimes used to keep bugs at bay. Raw skins can only be suspended in this state a few months before parasites will find a way in, destroying the leather. I finger the salt beads embedded in the wool, which is dirty—full of seeds, soil, and manure—as the coat of any animal living in the outdoors would be. Behind this pile is a pallet of “black” sheepskins, charcoal to a faded gray, the wool an inch and a half thick. I part it. Next to the skin, the fur is a clean apricot and cream. Wheeler says the grade determines what can be done with it. Being in Texas, one of the company’s biggest clients is the saddle maker, who needs large, fat, American sheep and who wants them dyed orange. Black sheep are often dyed “cappuccino” and used for boots. The popularity of Ugg boots has been a boon for the industry.
Wheeler is proud of his family’s company, and he seems to have had practice representing it. “When people ask me what I do for a living, I have to gauge their level of knowledge. Most people have no idea what a tannery does. I simply say I am in the leather business.” There are at least twenty-nine steps from salted skin to the finished product, he explains, a process that can take three weeks or more. After soaking in big rotating tanks to rewet and wash them, the skins are run through sabreuse machines, which rinse the wool and further scrape the skin. This is also where the first clipping occurs. (A shearling is a sheepskin or a lambskin that has been tanned with the wool on the skin. For other leathers, such as cowhide, the skins would also be soaked in a lime solution to facilitate dehairing.) The huge vats serve a number of functions: dyeing, washing, tanning. They are expensive, manufactured in Turkey or Italy—old-country centers of tanning—and were shipped at great expense. Surprisingly, all the work is still done by hand. I watch two men who have unloaded one of the tanks and are feeding the slippery skins through the sabreuse machines, one by one, controlling the speed by foot pedal.
Once the skins have been washed and defleshed, they enter a pickling solution of salt and sulfuric acid that “shocks” them so that they are receptive to the tanning agents. Some hides are vegetable tanned, a more natural process that uses tree bark, resulting in the stiffer, browner sheepskin that Thomas, in his Montana shop, uses for the soles of his slippers. Worldwide, however, 85 percent of skins are chromium- tanned, which turns them from white to a silver blue. These are the proverbial “wet blues,” or semiprocessed skins, that tanneries often ship off to other countries to be dyed and finished. (In this state, they are no longer susceptible to rot.) Every major tannery has a chemist on duty, Wheeler says, regulating the pickling, tanning, and dyeing agents depending on the state of the skins and the product that is to be made from them, adjusting for moisture content and seasonal temperature.
The stacked skins are wet, slimy as fish bellies. Because so much water is used in tanning, the drying process is crucial to the quality of leather obtained. I follow Wheeler into a room open to the air on all sides. This is where the “toggling machine” will dry and stretch each skin. (Because hides are sold per square foot, stretching is also crucial.) The toggling machine operators are gone for the day, but Wheeler shows me the specialized ringlike tool they slip their fingers into, the other end of it clipped to the edge of sheepskin. A tough job, he says, one man on either side pulling as hard as he can, then attaching the stretched hide to a metal screen which, overnight, will dry and stretch it incrementally further, a process akin to Native people staking the hide out in the sun. Wheeler and I are sweating profusely. I feel my jeans stuck to my legs. Mike comes out of the air-conditioned office and again invites me back on Monday to see the finishing crew. “Phew, worst it gets,” he says about the heat, but I can see he’s impressed that I’ve stuck it out so long. Me too. I’ve only been here an hour and a half. I would be one of those new employees who quit by noon.
The spotted sealskin slippers, trimmed with beaver, which I bought in Fairbanks for my lover; my Italian, hand-tooled, wingtip ankle boots, which my lover bought me on our trip to Rome—I hadn’t seen them as bodies flayed, flattened, salted, stacked, and piled on pallets. But one can smell the truth in a tannery. That is why packing plants, tanneries, and stockyards have always been located on the outskirts of town. Every major city in the world has an old Tannery Row, and many now have new ones. “Five years from now hides will never be lifted—seldom touched,” reads the 1970 edition of the National Hide Association’s Hide and Skin Handbook, perhaps optimistically. Tanning is more mechanized, but it is still a dangerous, labor-intensive, hands-on operation. Speaking to its fellow tannery owners, the handbook adds, “Five years from now where are we going to find men to stand shirtless and sweating knee deep in chrome loading a pile of wet blue stock?” The question as to where people in the future will be found to perform this difficult work, though, has been answered. Standing shirtless and often barefoot in chromium sulfates and poisonous dyes, they live in the poorest and most populous countries on earth.
The number of major tanneries in the United States has dropped from 250 in 1978 to fewer than a dozen. Currently, China and India lead the world in leather production, which is now a $77 billion industry. Two conditions have caused tanneries to move overseas: cheaper labor costs and fewer environmental regulations. One would think the tanneries would be a boon for employment in these countries, and they are, though the statistics are disturbing. Often, half the employees at these tanneries are child laborers, fourteen and fifteen and sometimes younger, working twelve-hour days seven days a week for minimum wage, which in India is about thirty-nine dollars a month. Occupational safety standards don’t exist.
Because of journalists like Sean Gallagher, who won a Pulitzer for his investigations into the health hazards of tanneries in Kanpur, India, or Raveena Aulakh, who reports on Bangladesh, we have learned of children standing barefoot in open gutters of chromium waste, handling hides with no gloves or other protective gear. Women and adolescents, their faces and hands peeling into horrific splotched patterns of purple and blue, work long hours, until they are too sick to continue. In addition to contact dermatitis and melanoma, chromium sulfates used in the tanning process cause respiratory illnesses (including asthma), blindness, leukemia, and, in studies done with tannery workers in Belarus, high instances of pancreatic cancer. A health assessment of 197 men working in Kanpur tanneries found their mortality rate to be 40.1 percent compared to 19.6 percent for nontannery workers. The average life expectancy of any child working in the Bangladeshi tanneries is fifty years. As one can imagine, there is no system in place to deal with occupational injuries or illnesses. People simply lose their jobs, and others take their places.
Chromium salts, the central ingredient in chrome-tanned leather, are the cause of most of this illness. Why use chromium if it has so many dangers? The answer is simple, one we have come to expect from global capitalist industries: tanning with leaves and herbs takes time—up to forty-five days. Chrome tanning can be accomplished in less than three. In addition, vegetable tans produce stiffer, less luxurious leather.
Health hazards at work are not the only problem with chromium. Tanning is a water-intensive industry. Just as in Wheeler’s tannery, skins must be washed and fleshed, pickled, and soaked in chromium and dyes mixed with water. Processing 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of hides uses over 845 gallons of fresh water. This water must, in turn, go someplace. Kanpur, called the “Leather City of the World,” sits on the banks of the Ganges River, India’s holiest river. In 2014 there were three hundred tanneries operating on its outskirts, employing an estimated twenty thousand people. The Ganges not only provides drinking water to millions but also irrigates cropland. Its water, which is crucial for crop production, is poisoning what food still grows there. Bangladesh has also emerged as one of the tanning capitals of the world. Hazaribagh, on the outskirts of Dhaka, the nation’s capital, has two hundred leather tanneries, employing fifteen thousand people. It sits on the banks of the Buriganda River. It is estimated that only about 20 percent of water flowing into the river is treated.
There is also the problem of solid waste. “Seventy percent of an untreated hide is eventually discarded as solid waste,” writes Andrew Tarantola in “How Leather Is Slowly Killing the People and Places That Make It.” In the city of Hazaribagh, which means “The Thousand Gardens” in Bengali, 5,547,613 gallons of untreated waste are released into the Buriganda River every day, making it one of the most polluted rivers in the world. In videos I’ve watched, bubbles appear in the gray water, like those in a witch’s cauldron. There are no longer any fish. It is, in effect, a dead river. Tannery runoff contains high levels of fat and other solid wastes, as well as the pesticides that are sometimes added in the early stages of getting skins to the tanneries. Hazaribagh is rated one of the five most toxic, heavily polluted sites on earth. Children are increasingly born with severe disabilities, and the groundwater has been found to be contaminated with chromium VI. “Short of binding U.N. arbitration or a massive international boycott against chromium tanned leather,” Tarantola writes, there is not much to be done, as the profits to be made are enormous.
“When customers call me and want me to match the price they got from China or India,” Wheeler says, “I tell them I can’t. Our people won’t work for those wages. See all these tanks? Those are wastewater treatment tanks. They’re expensive. The process of filtering is extensive. If people want to buy from places where they dump chemicals directly into the rivers, where workers are paid practically nothing, I say ‘Go ahead.’ What can I say? I say it’s up to them.”
As I should have predicted, when I return to the Nugget Company on Monday morning, Mike isn’t there, but Wheeler sighs and interrupts his work on the computer to take me around to see the processes that occur after tanning. Maroquinerie—the fashion industry’s term for fine leather goods, named after Morocco, which is famous for them— is merely skin until it has been dyed, split, conditioned, polished, and perhaps painted. These steps are collectively called “finishing.”
As the last process in the already multistage art of tanning, finishing has its own encyclopedic vocabulary. Full grain means that the skin is presented as is, replete with the animal’s scars and stains. Correctedgrain is sanded for uniformity; hot-stuffed is conditioned with grease. Split means the skin is sliced into thinner layers, for use in gloves and garments. To make suede, split leather is sanded on both sides. In the case of sheepskin, the skin side might be subjected to any of these treatments; the wool side might be sheared, electrified, tipped, curled, straightened, or plumped.
Before ending up in the finishing section of the factory, Nugget Company pelts have been dyed, sometimes multiple times, in the large rotary tubs used for tanning and pickling, or sprayed with a “stony” or “tonka” glaze, the latter so-called because it is favored for Minnetonka moccasins, one of the sheepskin industry’s biggest customers. In the past—and still in Marrakesh and Fez, where tourists can watch tannery workers trample goatskins in vats of bell pepper, red poppy, rose, henna, mint, and pomegranate—most leather was dyed with plants or other naturally occurring materials, including indigo, made from flowers native to Asia (Indigofera tinctoria); green span or verdigris, a copper acetate; saffron; and yellowwood. The makers kept their recipes under lock and key. Now over 70 percent of leather is dyed with plastic or “aniline” dyes produced from coal tars.
The finishing area of the factory consists of six machines, each about the size of an upright piano. An employee stands in front of each of them, a pallet of skins at his or her side. I watch as a woman deftly feeds a pelt under the roller, where the skin is heated and sheared to produce a spongier, springier wool, sort of like human hair after a hot conditioner. Wool lengths can be adjusted anywhere from one-half to one inch and curled or “electrified” by ironing out the kinks. Oils, waxes, and creams are applied, depending on whether the order is for slippers, coats, rugs, saddles, or even lambskin paint rollers.
Sheepskin, like any leather, is eventually a made thing, no longer sheep or skin. In the end mouton is, at least at the Nugget Company, a sheepskin tanned, dyed black, sheared, hot-combed, and fluffed into a material that much resembles mink. Life comes and goes, here in the tannery, into a multiplicity of forms.
Take shell cordovan—the name of a rich burgundy or dark rose leather from which men’s expensive shoes are made. Park Avenue Cordovan Oxfords, which Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush wore to their inaugurations, cost $650 a pair. The most nonporous leather in the world, lasting twenty years or more, shell cordovan is derived from the subcutaneous layer that covers a horse’s rump. Each horse provides two hides, or shells, enough for two pairs of shoes. According to the Horween Leather Company, which is famous for it, the leather itself can take up to six months to make, including vegetable tanning and retanning, shaving and reshaving, hand-oiling and dyeing. In between, the leather has to rest. And good horsehides are rare. They are obtained from places where people still eat horsemeat, namely Canada and Europe.
The Horween Leather Company is the only tannery left in Chicago, processing about four thousand cowhides and one thousand horsehides a week. (Besides being known as the cordovan capital of the world, the company is also the sole maker of footballs for the NFL.) Its product is rightly expensive, given the hours and expertise to produce it. “If you came to me and said, ‘Wow, I need a million of something in a really big hurry,’ you’re probably in the wrong place,” says owner Skip Horween III.
While the United States is the top producer of bovine hides in the world, it is also one of the top importers of leather goods, along with Germany, France, and the United Kingdom. To put this in perspective, in 2012, according to the US Hide, Skin, and Leather Association, we exported 1.6 billion raw cowhides. In turn, we buy a lot of these hides back as shoes. According to the World Statistical Compendium for Raw Hides and Skins, Leather and Leather Footwear, compiled by the United Nations, 4,504.8 million pairs of leather shoes were made worldwide in 2011. Of those, the United States imported 608.4 million pairs. That’s almost two pairs (1.92) for every man, woman, and child.
Until recently, leather was considered a luxury good, meaning extravagant and treasured, whether it is a fancy parka made of squirrels or the president’s cordovans. Today almost everyone, at least in America and Europe, expects to buy cheap or reasonably priced leather goods, whether shoes or handbags, belts or wallets. Leather’s transformation from precious to cheap commodity has come at the expense of severe environmental problems, health hazards for workers, and poorer, even unnatural, quality, in that some leathers now consist of up to 20 percent chemical additives. We have, as economists say, externalized the costs. In addition, although leather has always been justified as a by-product of human meat consumption, its production depends on a growing international industry that relies on that consumption. As journalist Fran Hawthorne, author of Ethical Chic: The Inside Story of the Companies We Think We Love, states, it “requires killing cows.”
Reprinted courtesy of Trinity University Press. This appeared in the book Putting on the Dog: the Animal Origins of What We Wear by Melissa Kwasny, published by Trinity University Press, May 2019. For more information, please visit www.tupress.org.
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