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

  1. Discover and Explore says:

    Very insightful and interesting. Thank you

  2. I really like your image “Perched on a Dye Pit”. It is both serene and it has energy. Keep up the great work.

    • Thanks for taking a look at this post that’s based on one of the most incredible places we’ve visited. I still can’t imagine that there are people still doing this work, but they are . . . and may have been doing so for years. It’s amazing to me that old crafts are still intact in many countries, and, as a visitor, I’m grateful for the opportunity to be there to see it!

  3. Educational post Rusha. I wonder if shoppers would be so enthusiatic if they knew that their beautiful, leather bag was made using ‘cow urine, pigeon poop, salt and quicklime.?” Of course, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with these agents, and in fact, it’s a great example of recycling. When I was in Ostia Antica I learned that the Romans used human urine, collected at public baths to whiten all their togas. Wait, this comment has taken a distinctly earthy turn that I didn’t intend. 🙂 Good post, and thanks for enduring the smells to bring this good info to me and the blogosphere. ~James

    • Thanks for your reaction and the additional mention of the length to which those Romans go to keep those togas white! As we are getting ready to head to the beach and we’re packing vinegar to remove the sting of jellyfish (here’s hoping we don’t have any!), I’m reminded of a remedy I heard that supposedly works well, too: just pee on the sting! But I’m not so sure the beach patrol is ready (nor am I) for this activity. We’re sticking with plain white vinegar!!! Happy summer. And welcome back. Can’t wait to read how to simplify my life from your new posts.

  4. Tina Schell says:

    It’s funny Rusha, this post is still getting attention after all this time! But it IS fascinating and the photos are wonderful. What a hard life for these workers, and probably a dying art (pun intended). Enjoyed my e-visit, seeing but not smelling!

    • It IS funny that it takes time for folks to find some of my posts. I’ve taken a break for a few months, so I’m amazed that any posts are being read at all. I still love seeing your photography and quotes that accompany the beautiful pictures. Hope you’ll continue as long as you enjoy doing so. I may get back into it, but I’d really like to overhaul the format before becoming a regular blogger again. Wishing you a great summer. And, as always, thanks for taking a look at my posts.

  5. nicolesapo says:

    This is amazing!! I’m just concerned with the workers in the tanneries but will definitely add this on my list <3

    • We agree on the amazing part. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing — an old-world process in the heart of a progressive city. But there it was. And fascinating. I, too, was concerned about the workers being in those vats for hours at a time. But as long as they can get workers, I’m not sure the average tourist will have any sway over the owners to protect their workers more.

      • nicolesapo says:

        Well work is work but this is a must see despite the smell. It’s amazing to see how they’ve kept practices and traditions like this which I hope to still see in the future. Another goal on my list! So much to learn from your blog :*

  6. Amy says:

    Very interesting, Rusha. Such a long process. Thank you for showing us.

    • Thanks for the comment. It really is a place everyone should see. There aren’t many of these tanneries left anywhere, I suspect. But it was a shock to see the men working so hard in terrible vats of dye, etc. What an interesting place!

  7. Jane Lurie says:

    Fascinating post and terrific images, Rusha. I cannot imagine the hardships the workers are going through with such grueling tasks. The finished products must have been tempting, though.

    • Thanks so much for the comment and for taking a look at those tanneries. It was amazing the work they do. And many of the men were in a long line of people in their family who had made their living in the tannery. We bought two leather poufs as gifts. We wanted to support their work, but maybe I should have rethought that. Maybe that just perpetuates these awful conditions. Not sure. But I bet the tanneries will be there if I ever get back!

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

  9. 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!

  10. 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 ….


    • 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.

  11. 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

  12. 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.

  13. tappjeanne says:

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

  14. dawnkinster says:

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

  15. 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!!

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

    • I guess I did spare you a smelly time in Morocco! But it was well worth seeing. To this day, I worry about those men being in the pits so much. But tradition is tradition, I suppose.

      Thanks for reading!

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