30 Apr The Origins of Leather
The act of tanning leather in order to preserve animal hides is thought to be one of the oldest activities performed by mankind. Although it is not possible to date precisely, there have been discoveries of leather artefacts dating back as far as 2200 BC. Raw hides were historically removed from livestock or game and used for shelter and protection from the elements, making use of the naturally water-resistant composition and thermal insulation qualities.
The problem, however, was that the hides would rot in hot temperatures, stiffen in cold temperatures, and break down over time as a result of decomposition. It was at this point that leather tanning was invented, which involved soaking and rubbing animal fats into the raw hides.
Over time, this process developed into the what is today referred to as vegetable tanning, a technique which is believed to have originated in the Egyptian town of Gebelein on the Nile river. Vegetable tanning, which represented a significant development in mankind’s technological progress, enabled the production of a durable material that could be used for varied applications ranging from book bindings to protective armour. Vegetable tanning spread throughout the middle eastern civilization and to ancient Greece and Rome, a movement that eventually resulted in the perfection of the technique during the Medieval Italian Renaissance.
This progressive period in Medieval Italy provided the perfect conditions for the leather tanning industry to really take off. Guilds were established to protect the secrets of the trade, allowing the area to provide a quality of leather unrivalled anywhere else in the world. The techniques used in vegetable leather tanning are still closely protected family secrets to this day, having been passed down from generation to generation for several centuries.
Even today, Italian leather makes up 16% of all leather production globally, and over two-thirds of all leather made in Europe.