Our ancestors discovered leather as a means to protect themselves from cold and other environmental conditions. Initially, the smoke of wood fires was used to preserve animal hides from decaying. Primitive men used to hunt wild animals for food and throw their skin on the ground. They then discovered that the skin turned tan naturally by the chemicals of the decaying vegetation. So, tanning is the process of turning raw animal hides into durable leather.
The craft of tanning is based on three primary methods - fat-based, plant-based, and mineral-based tanning - that are used till this date. In the early Stone age, around 8000 BCE, the quest to find methods of preserving hides began. Excavations in sites like in South Africa prove that tools were used for scraping hides and skins to remove hair. Humans began to rub fatty substances into the raw hides to create waterproof leather.
The wall paintings and artifacts dating back to 5000 BCE in Egyptian tombs indicate that leather was used to make sandals and clothes. Moreover, people of Egypt and Mesopotamia invented plant-based tanning using the bark of the gum arabic tree. Even though this type of tanning is a slow process, it results in the creation of stiff leather. Egyptian craftsmen also knew other tanning methods based on mineral alum and sesame oil.
Around 800 BCE, the Romans began tanning a variety of leathers using the alum tanning method. For instance, they tanned tough corium leather for armor and supple leather for sandals.
The Greeks were not far behind. Around 500 BCE, they made vegetable-tanned leather a well-established trade. Red poppy was used for making bright red color, rose for pink, mint for green, and pomegranate, and saffron to create yellow. The method of natural vegetable tanning can be seen even today in tanneries all around the world where the coloring agents are natural and plant-based.
In the renaissance period, leather was seen as a craft and means for shaping, stamping, and molding for functional purposes. For instance, ornamented leather upholstered high backed chair from Spain and Portugal. The range of products in leather extended to all sorts of bodily protection, also, protection of horses, saddlery, and accessories. Since then leather became one of the most desired upholstery materials in the world.
Patent leather - a coated leather with a shiny, glossy finish - was developed in 1818. This kind of leather is used in clothes, wallets, shoes, caps, and handbags. In 1858, chrome tanning was introduced - this was the greatest achievement in leather tanning history at the time. Chrome tanning is a process of using the solution of chemicals, acids, and chrome salts to dye rawhides. In its raw state, chrome-tanned skin is wet and tinged with blue. Sometimes it is referred to as wet blue.
The leather industry did not stop developing here. In 1963, DuPont introduced faux leather. Faux leather is synthetic leather that is made from a plastic base then, it is treated with wax or dye for texture and color. Due to its affordability, faux leather was used as an upholstery material in automobiles and extended to other products.
Today, 90% of the leathers are chrome tanned as it is economical and resistant to water stains. Some small scale producers still prefer vegetable tanning to produce rich and timeless leather. So now we know, leather tanning developed a material that can be used in almost everything. It is a craft that requires knowledge of the material, skill, and experience.