Leather-making was a difficult and time-consuming task for tanners of long ago. People used animal skins for making leather, either from hunting or from livestock animals. Eventually, leather-makers refined the process and improved it so that the leather would remain both strong and flexible over time.
How Leather-Making Originated
People in ancient civilizations recognized the value of animals and learned how to use every part of them in many different ways. Not only did animals provide food, but the remains of their carcasses also had value. People crafted tools from animal bones and teeth, they used the hair for sewing, and they learned how to use the skins for shelter and clothing. Early tanning processes resulted in problems with the leather because the skins rotted in warm temperatures and they became too stiff in cold temperatures. These difficulties necessitated tanning processes to preserve the leather and make it easier and more pleasant to use. Early tanning involved working fats into the hides to make them more supple.
Methods of Leather-Making
A common practice involved slaughtering livestock in the fall to avoid having to feed them over the winter. After the slaughter, the farmer would skin the animals to separate the hides. Next, the farmer would wash the hides in a river or lake to remove the blood and flesh from the skins. The skins would soak in the water until it was time to continue the leather-making process. The hides would then soak in vats of lime solution to remove the hair from the skins. After scraping off all of the hair, they would return the skins to the lime solution for alternate soaking and resting that lasted approximately six months. After this process, tanners would use tannic acids created from tree barks to preserve and dye the hides. Sometimes, they added other ingredients such as cider pressings or sour milk to create the desired finished effects. This phase of the process took approximately three months. The finishing process involved working oil or grease into the leather to make it supple.
Items Made from Leather
Many different items were and are made from leather. Common items include saddles, tents, awnings, aprons, pants, sandals, shoes, boots, moccasins, sacks and bags, hats, belts, and gloves. Additional items such as buckets, bottles, and even shrouds to bury the dead were also made from leather.
The Importance of Leather
In ancient history, people did not have the same variety of materials available today. Plastics were unavailable, and metal was prohibitively expensive. Pottery and glass broke easily, making them undesired materials in many situations. These factors made leather an affordable and accessible choice for clothing and other necessities. People had animals readily available by hunting or from livestock. As the tanning process improved, leather became more conducive to a variety of purposes. People even used it to make bags for carrying liquids.
- Skin and Skin Products (Leather): The Minnesota Historical Society provides general information about leather and the items made from leather in this PDF.
- History of Leather: This page gives an overview of leather and how tanners made it years ago.
- History of Leather Tanning in Johnstown: Information about leather tanning between 1752 and 1958 is given in this document.
- Ancient Tanning Methods: Learn about the leather-making process here.
- Tanning Hides: View a comparison of ancient and modern tanning methods here.
- Tanning Deer Hides and Small Fur Skins: Detailed information about the leather tanning process is contained in this PDF.
- Period Leather-Working Techniques: The University of Tulsa provides a description of the tooling, cutting, and dying process when tanning leather.
- Leather Products: The Leather Panel, a division of the U.N. Industrial Development Organization, gives an overview of various items made from leather.
- The Tanning Process: An explanation of the plant-based tanning process for leather-making is provided by the University of Illinois.
- Tanning, Dye and Processing Materials: Get information about plant-based tanning materials here.
- Tanning in the Seventeenth Century: The National Park Service offers a description of the tanning process utilized during this era.
- History of William B. Winne: Read an overview of how Winne contributed to the leather-making process.
- Working in Harness: See pictures and descriptions of colonial harness-making here.
- Leatherworking in the Middle Ages: Get information about the materials and processes used for stitching leather in the Middle Ages on this page.
- Leather Industry: An overview of the leather industry in Texas is provided by the Texas State Historical Association.
- Leather Tanning: This EPA document details the process of tanning leather.
- Home Tanning of Leather and Small Fur Skins: A digital copy of this book provided by the University of North Texas looks at how to tan leather at home.
- Tanning Goat Hides: Read this document to learn all about the process of tanning goat hides.
- Tanning Leather: Colorado State University offers step-by-instructions for how to tan your own hides.
- How to Tan a Deer Hide: This document offers useful information for hunters who want to use more of their prey.