Acts 9:43 New International Version (NIV)
“43 Peter stayed in Joppa for some time with a tanner named Simon.”
As the above quote from the Old Testament demonstrates, production of leather, the preserved skin of both game and domesticated animals for human use, is one of the oldest human activities. It is referenced in the Old Testament of the Bible, along with even older Assyrian sources. The most common theory about the origin of leather is that animal hides were used as clothing, shoes and the cover for tents. But in the cold, the hides would get stiff. In the heat, the hides would rot. People attempted to solve these problems by rubbing animal fat into the hides. This is the most primitive and basic style of preservation. This type of leather manufacturing is referenced by both the Assyrians, and in Homer’s Iliad:
“As when the slaughtered bull’s yet reeking hide (bull hide)
Strained with full force, and tugged from side to side (stretched on a rack to dry)
The brawny curriers stretch; and labor over (“curriers” in this work refers to tanners)
The extended surface, drunk with fat and gore” (the stretched skin getting fat, brain matter and “other” worked into it).
Another method of preservation was smoking. Today this is referred to as formaldehyde tanning, and was most likely discovered by accident. The smoke of green leafy plants contains formaldehyde.
As the process of preserving animal hides progressed and got more efficient, the process we call tanning was discovered. “Tanning” is a process that used a liquor of acids derived from plant material, most commonly oak trees- acorns. It is also referred as bark tanned, oak tanned or vegetable tanned. This was the most common variety of industrial leather- meaning leather produced for mass consumption. The Greeks had tanneries, as did the Romans. There is an intact Roman tannery in the archeological site of Pompeii.
In the Renaissance Scots Living History Association’s leather shop, we use primarily oak tanned leather (veg leather), as it was widely available. Veg leather was to the old world what plastic is today. Easily molded, strong and durable – it could be used to make anything from shoes to saddles, shields to scabbards. In the RenScots, we teach the history of this wonder material, as well as its myriad uses. We use some modern tools when historic ones are not available. Examples of this are stamping tools with exchangeable handles, and modern swivel knives. We also use as many historical tools as possible, which is surprisingly easy. We use a half moon blade, which has been has been in use by various cultures for 3000 years; Alaskan natives call it the ulu. We use mauls, which have been a mainstay for craftspeople for as long as people have been hitting things with short heavy sticks. We use wax, water, scratching tools. We use sewing needles and stitching awls. We sew with sinew (albeit artificial.) The tools used for manipulating veg leather haven’t really changed much since the Italian Renaissance. One has only to Google “15th Century Italian pen cases” to see the hand of the craftsmen of that time. On those wonderfully tooled pieces, one can see beveling, stippling, and cutting. These are all things leather toolers do today! In “The Archeology of York Volume 17: Small Finds”, one can see a photograph of a tooled Saxon seax sheath! The same techniques can be seen on that piece. There are shallow knife cuts (which today we make with a swivel knife). There is beveling, and background shading. In the RenScots, we demonstrate how this decoration is done, and discuss the modern tools vs the archaic ones, and where the overlap is. If you catch us at a workshop time, we will even let you participate in this ancient craft.
On a side note, long time visitors to the RenScots village will notice that the leather shop has a new home this year. We outgrew our old tent due to an influx of apprentices. We are a teaching organization – apprentices are welcome and encouraged!
Find Leather demonstrations in the RenScots Living History Village in the Hide and Hair Pavilion.
Museum Of Leathercraft
The Leather Conservation Centre
The Reverend’s Big Blog of Leather
Leather and Leatherworking in Anglo-Scandinavian and Medieval York
Leather Tannery in Pompeii
Leather Resource – History of Leather
Wikipedia.org – Parchment
The Leatherworker in Eighteenth-Century Williamsburg