Vegetable-Tanned Leather: Why We Like To Do Things The Hard Way

“Quality is never an accident. It is always the result of intelligent effort.” - John Ruskin

Our first bag - the Soft Briefcase - was born after Roman found it impossible to find what he was looking for: a functional, great looking laptop bag made with vegetable tanned leather that didn’t cost a month's rent in San Francisco.

When we decided to just do it ourselves and created our design studio, we soon understood why it was so hard to find.

Vegetable-tanned leather is a difficult material to work with, in many different ways.

So why do we go through the trouble?

We’ve gotten this question a lot. Here we'll share some of the reasons.

Just What Is Vegetable-Tanning?

Before we get into the why, a quick primer on tanning. Tanning is the process that changes the raw animal hides into long-lasting, stable material.

There are two ways to do it:

Vegetable tanning is the traditional method of tanning which uses natural tannins derived from tree bark. As the process relies primarily on organic materials rather than synthetic chemicals, it can take up to four to six weeks. It’s an artisanal process that requires extremely specialized knowledge, and it is usually passed through generations at family-owned tanneries. Vegetable-tanned leather makes up 10% of world leather production today.

Chrome tanning is the main process used in the fashion industry, making up 90% of world production. It was invented as a mass-production, quicker alternative to vegetable-tanning. The tanning process typically takes a day, rather than weeks. Instead of using natural tannins, chrome tanning uses toxic chemicals like chromium salts, which are harmful to human health and the environment. It's much less labor-intensive, and cheaper and allows tanners to get away with using lower-quality hides.

Why Most Companies Don’t Use Vegetable-Tanned Leather

It’s expensive: Quality vegetable-tanned leather costs much more than quality chrome-tanned leather. You need to start with better hides, and there’s much more time and skill involved in the tanning.

It’s slower: Vegetable-tanned leather takes weeks to tan. Most brands don’t want to wait that long.

Most factories don’t like to work with it: Vegetable-tanned leather is notoriously difficult to work with if you’re making fine goods. You have to be much more careful when you’re handling it, and pay much more attention when you’re cutting and sewing. For cheaper brands, this isn’t worth the extra effort.

So Why Do We Choose Vegetable-Tanned Leather?

Despite the challenges of using vegetable-tanned leather, we couldn't dream of making our leather goods with any other kind of leather.

Here’s why:

To honour an artisanal tradition: This is how leather has been tanned for hundred of years, and we want to help continue this artisanal tradition for at least a hundred more. We’d hate to see this process disappear because of mass production methods.

It’s better for the environment:  Chrome tanning uses toxic chemicals that are not only bad for the environment; they can be poisonous for the people and communities that the industry touches, especially in countries with poor regulations. We don’t think chrome tanning is worth the environmental and human cost.

Better looking products: Vegetable-tanned leather has a beautiful, natural look. As designers, we want to honour the integrity of the material, and vegetable-tanning is the best way to do that.

The patina!: The natural tannins give vegetable-tanned leather the ability to change over time, developing a beautiful lustre with exposure to the sun and your use.

At Linjer, we're proud to use vegetable-tanned leather from tanneries in Turkey and in Italy that have continued their families' traditions for generations. If you would like to learn more about our leather, please see the Our Leather page of our website.

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