Moroccan Tanneries - The handicraft of a 1000 years old

A boy whispers to us in the medina "Come follow me....I will show you the tanneries".   I have read about these tanneries and was curious to learn the process.   We followed him through the small medina streets, turning in every direction.   We began to feel lost, and we could see him ahead making sure we were making our way, but we had our doubts that he was leading us with good intentions.   But a twinkle in his eye and an excitement he had of what we were about to discover, we continue to follow with good instinct.   The boy passed us off to an older gentleman, the tannery worker.   He gave us a sprig of mint to smell as the ammonia smell from the pigeon droppings cleaning the skins was strong.    As we entered, there was a football field of VATS of different colors and skins being worked beside them.    

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Skins are Sorted and Cleaned

The tanning process begins with the collection and sorting of the raw animal skins. The types of animal skins used are cow, sheep, goat and camel, with goat and camel being the most valuable.    These skins are soaked for three days in large vats with a natural mixture that removes the hair and excess from the skins . This mixture will loosen excess fat, flesh, and hair that remain on the skins.

Sorting and Cleaning of Skins

Sorting and Cleaning of Skins

Drying and Creating the Supple Leather

The next step is to dry the skins on the rooftop terraces in the Moroccan sun.    After the drying process,  the skins are washed and soaked in a mixture of water and pigeon droppings in order to make the skins supple and soft.    The tanner then uses his hands and feet to knead the skins for up to three hours to achieve the softness that the artisans are looking to make the bags.

Drying of the skins on the rooftops

Drying of the skins on the rooftops

Tanning and Dying Process of the Skins

Moroccan leather has a tradition of being colorful, and we appreciate that Morocco uses natural vegetable dyes for this process.    Within the Old Medina, the tanneries continue to use natural vegetable dyes, such as poppy flower (red), indigo (blue), henna (orange), cedar wood (brown), mint (green), and saffron (yellow).   We found the view at the Chouara Tannery, an Unesco World Heritage site from the 9th century, to be an artist's pallet of an ancient tradition of hard work, a family trade passed down, and creativity utilizing the beauty of rugged leather.   

Chouara Tannery

Chouara Tannery

A Reflection on the Leather Process in Morocco

I have always had a love for leather - the supple, natural, and rugged product that is perfect for shoes and purses!   A fashion must have in my wardrobe.   The process in Morocco was eye opening and I appreciated why I pay a premium for my leather product.   However, there is a large discussion on sustainability that I wanted to confront.   There are arguments of chromium used to tan leather to our exact desire - which impacts the water supply and health of people.   I will never have 100% of the answers, but here is what  I did learn.   The Chromium is not known to be used in the old tanneries as they use natural vegetable dyes to tan their product.    Morocco is also building modern facilities to eliminate any natural waste that the tanning process can impact the environment.    

We all know leather is made from an animal's skin.   From our research, the leather is used as a by product of the meat that we eat.    I do not claim to be vegan, but respect that others live a vegan life.     In the bags we are providing, we are researching to ensure that it meets an appropriate standard in sustainability for the leather lovers still out there.   

Overall, we respect the ancient tradition of leather making in Morocco.   An economic and artistic system that provides work from the shepherds to the tannery workers to the artisans creating the bags.   

Shop all of our Moroccan Jewelry.   New Leather Bags coming soon......

Wanderkarma Tips

TIP 1:  The Tannery is not easy to find in Marrakech or Fes medina.   Boys from the ages of 9 to 12 will want to take you to the Tannery.   Morocco would like you to use official tour guides.   Use your own precautions when following the boys, and they will ask for a tip.   See it as supporting the local economy.   

TIP 2:  Leather is made out of animal hydes, and sometimes the smell and the sights of the tannery can be overwhelming. Take precaution on what you can handle before you enter.

TIP 3:   The tanneries are still a tourist sight when you go to Morocco.   They sell beautiful bags, shoes, and ottomans, but remember with any tourist sight, prices are inflated compared to artisan shops in the medina.