Leather is one of Morocco’s oldest, most admired and most coveted goods. It’s the largest major export to trading partners France, Spain and India, and the tanneries in Fez are more than 1000 years old. The Chouara Tannery, in the heart of the medieval city, is the oldest tannery in the world. So what exactly goes on in a tannery?
First, sheep, goat, camel and cow skins are collected and sorted, then soaked for a few days in large vats of water, salt, cow urine and quicklime. And yes, it smells just as appealing as it looks. As disgusting as it is, the mixture is effective. It loosens all excess flesh, hair and fat from the skin, so it can be easily scraped off before the skin dries.
The skins are beaten to remove water, and hung out to dry along the terrace of the tannery, creating a sort of morbid decoration. They’re then washed again, this time in a mixture of pigeon droppings. Apparently pigeon droppings contain high amounts of ammonia, which makes the skin soft and malleable. Tanners also knead the skin to make it even softer.
Now the skin can be dyed, which is the fun part. The tanneries in Fes use natural dye – bright poppy flowers make red dye, indigo makes blue, mint makes green, saffron a deep yellow, and henna for orange.
Finally, the leather is cut and sold to craftsmen for purses, wallets, slippers, furniture and any number of other leather goods.
The process is labor intensive and dirty, so it’s no wonder Morocco is having a hard time filling positions. New artisan schools around Fes train students in tannery work, weaving and other crafts in order to keep the tradition alive.