Just hold your nose and go: The Fez Tanneries

A balcony vantage point allowed us to see the whole operation at the Fez tannery we visited.

A balcony vantage point allowed us to see the whole operation at the Fez tannery we visited.

Moroccan leather doesn’t just happen to be colorful, soft, and naturally dyed.  That’s just how we, the consumers, find it.  The real process of softening/dyeing/drying is labor-intensive, to say the least.  But thanks to the families who continue to do the work, tanneries like Chouara Tannery in the Fez medina continue to produce highly prized leather goods sold around the world.

At the end of the tour of the tannery, beautiful leather purses await their buyers.

At the end of the tour of the tannery, beautiful leather purses await their buyers.

All the tourist guides we read offered a warning:  Beware the rank odors.  Well, odorous it was in Fez the day we visited, but we were so mesmerized by the work in century-old tiled pits that we put down the sprig of mint offered to us for our noses so we could take pictures of a production we’re not likely to see again in our lifetimes.

Welcoming us to the showroom where leather goods occupied the shelves on all several floors.

Welcoming us to the showroom where leather goods occupied the shelves on all several floors.

From our balcony vantage point, the open space filled with circular pits resembled a child’s paint set — without the brushes, of course.

Two parts of a Fez tannery: white side for softening; colored pits for dyeing.

Two parts of a Fez tannery: white side for softening; colored pits for dyeing.

White pits offered one component of the process — cleaning and softening.  After skins are brought by donkey to the tannery, they are dipped into a mixture of that includes cow urine, pigeon poop, salt and quicklime.

Worker in white pits of Fez tannery.

Worker in white pits of Fez tannery.

The colorful dye pits use poppy seed, saffron, henna, and indigo as color agents for the leather which is soaked then lifted out for drying.

Workers are mostly born into the job, and the work is organized as old guilds would have done with men mastering and maintaining specific skills.

A worker rests on the side of dye pit in Fez.

A worker rests on the side of dye pit in Fez.

It takes two: Fez tannery

It takes two: Fez tannery

Perched on a dye pit: Fez tannery

Perched on a dye pit: Fez tannery

The entire tanning process is not without drawbacks, of course, as laborers standing in chemicals all day report frequent health problems.

Utilizing natural dyes of henna, indigo, saffron and poppy, workers add color to softened hides.

Utilizing natural dyes of henna, indigo, saffron and poppy, workers add color to softened hides.

So, should you visit the tanneries in Morocco?  We say MOST DEFINITELY. If you’re interested in practices handed down through generations since medieval times and seeing how Moroccan leather gets — and deserves — its reputation for being the finest in the world, then, by all means, “Get thee to a tannery!”  (Hold your nose, if you have to.)

Man outside the tannery in Fez signaled his OK for our visit.

Man outside the tannery in Fez signaled his OK for our visit.

For more information:

Chouara Tannery located in Fes el Bali, the oldest part of the medina.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chouara_Tannery

For more pictueres of Fez, Morocco, click on our Flickr account.

And for more posts, check out Marvelous Morocco.

About Oh, the Places We See

Met at University of Tennessee, been married for 47 years, and still passionate about travel whether we're volunteering with Habitat Global Village, combining work at Discovery with pleasure, or just seeing the world. Hope you'll join us as we try to see it all while we can!
This entry was posted in Africa, Boomer Travel, Marvelous Morocco, Morocco, Photography and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Just hold your nose and go: The Fez Tanneries

  1. Great post and photos!
    I didn’t go to the tanneries whilst in Fez but we can’t do everything when travelling… 😉

  2. Valentina says:

    I have seen one of those tanneries and still remember the stench, yikes! I really felt for the workers.

    • Thanks for your comment, and I apologize for being slow to respond. We’ve just returned from Southeast Asia, and there are scenes like the tanneries that I can hardly get out of my mind. I, too, feel for workers. And there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of federal regulations to keep workers safe. In fact, those tanneries would probably be shut down in USA. Wishing you a happy February!

  3. We visited these same tanneries in Fez many years ago but it was nice to revisit them again via your blog, vivid description and videos and photographs. We too found it absolutely fascinating, mesmerizing to watch the workers. Such an incredible powerful and unique visual sight! Well worthwhile.

    Of course there is also the aspect of all the animals killed so that people can have their leather products and I only hoped that they at least ate the animals as well and did not just kill them for their skins. And then the health component of the workers and how it impacts them and their quality of life is absolutely no joke. It is surprising really that they don’t wear rubber pants and gloves and face masks but this is the way it has been done for generations upon generations 9as you mention) and so it will go on ….

    Peta

    • We did indeed think about the humanitarian impact of our purchasing hides from animals and wondered if they were treated cruelly. And we were very concerned about the health and safety of the men working in the tanneries. It’s very surprising that they wore little to no protective clothing, and I don’t know why. We try not to judge when we travel since customs and cultural ways are very different from ours. But you had to be moved while watching this work go on. Thanks for taking a look.

  4. Interesting! Thanks for the vivid description of what goes into the white pots, Rusha. I think. 🙂 Everything I have ever read says to never live downwind from a tannery!
    Not surprised about the health problems. –Curt

  5. To see how the other half lives………………….

    • Isn’t that the truth. I love soft leather, but just knowing how it’s treated makes me not want to buy any of it. But it’s quite the industry there, and they obviously believe in keeping the old ways around.

  6. tappjeanne says:

    Wow! I had to hold my nose just reading the list of ingredients for the softener!

  7. dawnkinster says:

    That was really interesting. I loved the shot of the man in red perched between the vats.

  8. maristravels says:

    I’ve often wondered how they got those jewel colours in their leathers and now I know. A most enjoyable post but I did worry about the workers coping with the fumes and standing in those vats – bound to have an effect on their health. Were you tempted to buy anything? I’m a sucker for these places.

    • As a matter of fact, we did buy something — two poofs. They are square and hand-stitched. They fold up flat for taking home, and then you stuff them full of cotton, plastic bags, styrofoam peanuts — anything to make them form a cube shape. They’re beautiful, but, oh my, what that leather went through to make it to my house!!

  9. The tanneries weren’t on our agenda when we were in Fez. Thanks for showing me around, without the bad odours. 🙂

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