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.
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.
From our balcony vantage point, the open space filled with circular pits resembled a child’s paint set — without the brushes, of course.
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.
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.
The entire tanning process is not without drawbacks, of course, as laborers standing in chemicals all day report frequent health problems.
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.)
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.