An American Abroad

The Tannery in Fes

I like leather — belts, shoes, straps, accents. One of my favorite possessions, in fact, is a heavy leather overnight bag made by Saddleback Leather and gifted to me by a very good friend. It weighs a ton. It takes a good three minutes to open or close. It’s wildly impractical compared to all the lightweight many-pocketed overnight bags other people have. But I love it for its style and durability.

As much as I appreciate good leather, I had never given much thought to how it’s made. At a tannery in Fes, I got an education.

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When the animal skins come in, they are first soaked in vats of pigeon shit. The ammonia released by the guano softens the leather.

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Next the pieces are placed in dyeing vats to produce the desired color.

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The pieces are stomped on by workers inside the vats to work the dye into the leather. Finally, the skins are removed and left out to dry.

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It’s smelly, dirty work. We were given sprigs of mint to hold under our noses as we walked through. The workers, though, had no such comfort, let alone health and safety gear. The process and the facility seem to be centuries old. I still love my leather, but I now have a new appreciation of the work that goes into it.

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