In Morocco, leather is the largest major export to partners like Spain, France and India with up to 100 million slippers or shoes exported annually. There are three tanneries in Fez that have been washing, treating, smoothing and coloring animal skins into soft leather for over a thousand years. As we approached this tannery in the Medina, the smell emanating from the tanning vats was somewhat overwhelming. Read on (or not) to understand why…
The skins are collected, sorted then soaked for two to three days in large specialty vats that contain a mixture of cow urine, quicklime, water, and salt until they are clean. Once clean, they are laid out to dry (see right side of panoramic image above). Once dried, the skins are then soaked in other vats that are a mixture of water and chicken feces which contains ammonia that softens them and makes them supple. The tanner then uses his bare feet to knead the skins for three hours until they have reached the desired softness.
The skins are then moved to the vats used for dyeing. The tanneries in the Old Medina continue to use natural vegetable dyes including poppy flower (red), indigo (blue), henna (orange), cedar wood (brown), mint (green), and saffron (yellow). Other materials used for dyeing include pomegranate powder, which is rubbed on the skins to turn them yellow, and olive oil, which will make them shiny. The skins are left in the dyeing vats for about one week. Each week the dyes are changed out for different colors.
Once they fully absorb their color they are taken to be stretched on wooden frames until they dry. The total tanning process takes about 20 days from start to finish. The life of a tanner is not an easy one. Not only is it considered to be one of the hardest and dirtiest professions within the Fez, it is also incredibly labor intensive.
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