Veg v. Chrome Tanning

Discussion in 'Outerwear' started by Superfluous, Mar 4, 2014.

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  1. BuzzTheTower

    BuzzTheTower New in Town

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    Location:
    Seattle, WA
    Gents,

    The issue of leather being chrome tanned and veg tanned is a rather complicated matter. Every tannery has their processes, and though the basic chemicals are similar, one can make a million different little changes to the basic operation. Imagine going to one restaurant, and having a chicken dinner. You may not like it much, so you say that all chicken dinners are bad. The logic is flawed, as one restaurant may have a radically different method of cooking chicken compared with others.

    All the documentation I have ever seen from government leather for garments has demanded that the leather be chrome tanned. It's fast, it's good with water, and the demand was that the leather be as pre-shrunk as possible, so that it would not shrink any farther with use and the weather. A tannery is naturally going to try to make every penny they can from the hides they receive, and will want to stretch the skins as flat as possible (this is done on what looks like a bed frame of metal mesh, and a lot of clips hold the leather to the frame). The method of drying the skins will determine how much the leather could shrink - the more stretched out drying, the more of a chance of it contracting, and the more it's allowed to dry without stretching, the more it will not shrink.

    Chrome tanning can be as fast as one day, and then veg tanning is longer, but it depends. One can also chrome tan, and then do a veg re-tan. Shinki takes two weeks of soaking in the tannins, and then three months of natural drying for each skin (not heated, but air drying). I've heard of veg tanning taking much longer, but I'm not well versed in the differences.

    Why choose veg-tanning over chrome tanning? I hate to say it, but there's really no reason of value. It's just that the tanneries that offer horsehide that I prefer just happen to specialize in veg-tanning. I'd be happy to use chrome tanned horsehide, as it makes no difference to me. The difference between the two tanning systems isn't any big deal--chrome tanned hides feel great, and are historically accurate. Veg-tanned hides feel great, and aren't historically accurate. But veg-tanned hides can be bought with colors that I choose, rather than going through a somewhat tricky process where I have to take the colors given to me. Shinki in Japan will do any color I can come up with, and in the volume I prefer to purchase (I don't have to buy a million square feet of each color). Their turnaround is good, and the product very consistent in quality.

    I can also get hides from Italy, and they are veg-tanned. Very good stuff, and I hope to offer it in the near future. I also know of a tannery in the US (not Horween) that offers chrome tanned horsehide, but my problem is that they don't understand the type of finish that I want, and a solid portion of the hides have problems, from divots that are too thin, to holes, to sections being stiff and other sections being thin and overly soft. They simply don't have the quality control that I want.

    The "front quarter" definition of horsehide is the neck area of the horse, all the way back to just before the butt, and from the spine down to almost the lower center of the horse. There is no "front quarter" and "non-front quarter" of horsehide. Where else could you get the hide from? The legs? Too tiny! Any garment grade horsehide is simply front quarter. It can be cut thick, thin, tanned soft, hard, but it's all front quarter.

    One funny detail about horsehide is that the butt is the most valuable part. That is where cordovan, which is the butt cheeks, is taken from. That's where the big money is, and believe me, it's good money. That goes into shoes and other heavy leather products. The front quarter part of the hide is "leftover", and hey, you can make jackets out of it. Yes, it's leftover from a much more expensive product. Why throw it away when you can sell it for garments and such? Few tanneries like to deal with horse, though, as the demand is proportionately low compared with cowhide, and sourcing the hides takes quite a bit of work. Poland and France are the biggest sources for hides, so you can see that they have to travel a bit to get to Italy or Japan. Some comes from Canada, too, and maybe even the US, but I'm not well versed on this.

    We are asked all the time by customers if horsehide is better than cowhide, or actually are told that horsehide is better than cowhide. It ain't true!!!! The truth is that both hides are fantastic, but the tannery, the tannery, the tannery, the tannery, the tannery is what makes a hide better or worse. There are good tanneries, great tanneries, and there are tanneries that suck. It's just like any restaurant, denim company, or airline. Some do things well, and others just don't care all that much, or aren't working with the best of material available. You can tan cowhide to be beautiful, strong, grainy, and have a vintage look. Just like horsehide.

    Then, we could talk about the finish. Or how the base leather is colored. All these things, just like with the tanning process, are unique to the tannery. One company using aniline can be quite different than another company using aniline. One company putting a pigment finish as a top coat may apply more shine than another. I was told by one tannery that I respect quite a bit in Italy that the amount of shine, with their clear coat over aniline, was controlled by the amount of heat applied to it. If it's 90 degrees, the shine is low, and if brought up to 110 degrees, it's much more shiny. I don't have the specifics, but this kind of control is in the hands of the tanners. It's no mistake how much shine the leather has.

    In the old days, every city would have tanneries, maybe many of them. Every single tannery would have it's own recipes for every part of the process - how they would dry the skins, how they were finished, how much grain was allowed, how they were either pressed or not pressed. That is why we look back at vintage jackets, and see such amazing differences from one jacket to another. Unfortunately, most of that knowledge in each tannery is long gone, having died off with the people who were doing the work. Many tanneries suffered in the 1950s as people moved from leather garments to cloth garments that changed with the new seasons (obviously shoes and belts were doing just fine). If you Google any city, and the word tannery, you will see the history of what tanneries were in the area back then. Often there were many tanneries in each city. I think with A-2 contracts, it was common for the larger contracts to have been fulfilled with several tanneries' goods.

    Peabody, Massachussetts was tannery town. There were many, many tanneries there. It all collapsed in the 1950s, but before that, you could get anything from Peabody. Chicago had many tanneries, too. Horween has been around a long time, and has done very well, considering that many tanneries, even one across the street, are all long gone. The legal constraints of tanning are so powerful now, it's almost impossible to tan leather in the US. I'm glad that we have a few left. The area of Napa in California was a massive tanning center - Nappa leather was developed there, and the extra P was added so that people would pronounce it correctly. All that's left is Hide House, a company that sells great leather, but the tanneries are long gone.

    Pfister and Vogel Tannery in Milwaukee was the biggest tannery in the world for a while. If look look through images in Google, you'll see what was once a huge operation, but has since been demolished. I can only imagine what it was like in its heyday. I would imagine they were tanning horse hides and goatskin, along with many other things.

    I hope that helps!
    John
     
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  2. Boyo

    Boyo One Too Many

    Messages:
    1,541
    Location:
    Long Island NY
    ^^^ There you go!, you can trust the above statements to be definitive. Thanks JC
     
  3. Mr.Astor

    Mr.Astor Banned

    Messages:
    246
    Location:
    New Jersey
    Thanks Buzzthetower! Sounds like you know leather,I was always told you only buy leather from certain countries, U.S. Italy or Spain. Very nice presentation.i wonder what THE DANE will have to say about this!! HA!
     
  4. Superfluous

    Superfluous My Mail is Forwarded Here

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    @BTT: Werd!

    Thanks John, not only for the comprehensive explanation of tanning, but also for the many additional details in your post. I will re-read your post many times in order to fully digest it. Now I need to get in your rotation.
     
  5. Smithy

    Smithy I'll Lock Up

    Messages:
    5,137
    Location:
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    One of the most informative and useful posts which has put up here in a very, very long time. And one which cuts through a lot of the bulldust :eusa_clap

    Nice one John, now get back to making those jackets, there's people waiting you know :D
     
  6. TXFlyGuy

    TXFlyGuy Practically Family

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    969
    Location:
    Texas
    I was told by more than one manufacturer (including G&B) that most skins come from the Middle East (Pakistan), especially if it is goat skin. Very few, if any, hides are of US origin today. This is due to the government getting into the tanning business...your friendly EPA.

    edit: As Buzzthetower pointed out above.
     
    Last edited: Mar 6, 2014
  7. TXFlyGuy

    TXFlyGuy Practically Family

    Messages:
    969
    Location:
    Texas
    Dear John...Buzzthetower,

    Thanks for the info! Amazing post and educational, especially for a rookie like myself.
     
  8. Couldn't ask for a better explanation than that. Thanks JC.
    HD
     
  9. pipvh

    pipvh Practically Family

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    619
    Location:
    England
    Thank you for some real resource material, JC. Invaluable.

    Incidentally, I wonder whether the sudden decline of tanneries had something to do with the end of horses as the primary source of power for transport and farming? Not in terms of horsehide but as a huge market (tack/saddlery) that needed to be serviced...
     
  10. Sloan1874

    Sloan1874 I'll Lock Up

    Messages:
    8,326
    Location:
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    The cost of installing gov' stipulated environmental protection had something to do closures as well, I think. Speaking to Skip, he said that Horween took this seriously the moment it started to be an issue, rather than waiting for it to be legislated into force, and avoided the financial burden of having to play 'catch up' with the law.
     
  11. Bunyip

    Bunyip Call Me a Cab

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    2,068
    Location:
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    Very, very informative.
     
  12. TXFlyGuy

    TXFlyGuy Practically Family

    Messages:
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    Location:
    Texas
    Much the same thing has been experienced by the US paint industry. While not being legislated completely out of business, the government mandates have run the cost up considerably...have you priced a quart of aircraft paint lately? Same thing with automotive paints.
     
  13. Mickey Bowtie

    Mickey Bowtie New in Town

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    Location:
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    Thank You JC! Very good post.
     
  14. AustinTX

    AustinTX One of the Regulars

    Messages:
    134
    Location:
    Houston, Tx.
    John-

    Myself, I prefer to have my squaws rub the skins with bison brains and then smoke them in a teepee for a month or so, but that's just me. Just to be clear, is there no real difference in quality of the aging between chrome and veg tanning, or is that more a function of the dyeing. Or is the whole issue a kind of industry legend?
     
  15. wild_balls

    wild_balls Practically Family

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    Location:
    WESTCOAST OF SWEDEN
    This saved us from a lot of speculations, thank you!

    Cheers Joakim
     
  16. ProteinNerd

    ProteinNerd My Mail is Forwarded Here

    Messages:
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    Location:
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    WOW! I just learned more in 3 minutes about leather than the last 2 years...thanks so much for that.
     
  17. lkalliance

    lkalliance New in Town

    Messages:
    44
    Location:
    Twin Cities area, MN
    As far as squaws and hides are concerned, it's tradition in my tribe that when a squaw is with child, it is good luck for the tribe if she sleeps on the skin of a hippopotamus, as that is sure to ensure that she births twins, which will increase our numbers. One year we had three squaws with child at the same time, which is unheard of...but the hunters were only able to come back with one hippo skin. So of course only the squaw that laid on that skin had twins, and the other two had one child apiece.

    Which just goes to prove that the squaw of the hippopotamus is equal to the sum of the squaws of the other two hides.
     
    Last edited: Mar 6, 2014
  18. AustinTX

    AustinTX One of the Regulars

    Messages:
    134
    Location:
    Houston, Tx.
    You were right to try that angle!
     
  19. lkalliance

    lkalliance New in Town

    Messages:
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    Location:
    Twin Cities area, MN
    Usually I'm pretty obtuse.
     
  20. scrawlysteve

    scrawlysteve One of the Regulars

    Messages:
    213
    Location:
    London
    Our squaws use Pythonagoras skin---but it's uncomfortably scalene....
     
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