Vegetable Tanned Leather: Much more variety than you think.

If you’re like most people, when you hear the words “vegetable tanned leather”, a specific picture pops into your mind (unless you’re like the confused/disappointed people who call me every couple months who read “veg-tan leather” as “vegan leather”).  Most people I talk to, even many who work with leather, think that veg-tan is that natural colored leather that’s been made popular in the last 5-10 years, by tons of artisan leatherworkers.  This leather known for it’s natural look and ability to acquire a patina quickly and easily.  While this kind of veg-tan (natural) is great (especially for tooling, hand-dying and wet- molding), it’s just one of many types of leather that fall into the much bigger “veg-tan category”.  There’s also a lot of “fluff” and misinformation out there about Veg-tan’s qualities and benefits,  and, just like with Full Grain, these exaggerations and myths come mainly from people marketing products they make from veg-tan. It’s easy to find articles exaggerating or skewing the advantages of Veg-tan leather vs Chrome-tan leather, so towards the end of this post we’ll bust some straight-up myths and add some nuance to the other claims made about vegetable tanned leather.

 

General Info: What makes Veg-Tan different?

Vegetable tanned leather is leather that is tanned using tannins and other ingredients found in different vegetable matter, such as tree bark prepared in bark mills, wood, leaves, fruits, and roots.  Now, this doesn’t mean that they’re dumping a bunch of bark into vats with the leather, most tanneries use extracts purchased in bulk.  This is in contrast with the other major industrial method of tanning leather, chrome tanning, which uses chromium salts.

Vegetable tanned leather makes up a much smaller percentage of leather produced than chrome-tan and is generally considered a somewhat “more natural” product but, like everything produced on an industrial scale, “more natural” is relative.  One claim that does hold true with veg-tan is that it does also take significantly longer to produce (months vs days) than chrome-tanned leather.

The many variations of veg-tan:

 

The OG:  Natural Veg-Tan “Tooling Leather”

IMG_0101

You’ll find lots of companies making wallets to belts and everything in between out of natural veg.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that; I’ve made quite a few natural veg-tan wallets as custom requests and a few bulk orders for wholesale customers.  However, leaving this type of leather “natural” is a fairly recent trend.  I’ve been going to craft shows  looking at and selling leather goods since I was less than a year old, and can’t remember ever seeing the preponderance of natural veg-tan that you see nowadays from big-name makers and artisan brands.  This is because, to put it simply, natural veg-tan is made to be further treated/finished in some way.  At the very least, traditional makers would oil the the leather to darken it up and condition it.    The reason that natural veg develops a “patina” so much more noticeably and quickly than other leathers is because natural veg-tan is made to absorb water for tooling and also to absorb leather dye to further finish it.  When it darkens because of use, you’re literally dying it slowly with your own natural oils and dirt.

Natural Veg-Tan: Meant to be tooled

Natural vegetable tanned leather is ideal if you want to make a tooled belt or wet-mold it to make a perfectly fitting holster.  It’s also the go-to for traditional saddle making.   For many years we’ve offered hand-dyed embossed wallet in veg-tan that we emboss and finish ourselves:

 

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Other Vegetable Tanned Leathers:

Natural Vegetable tanned may be what comes to mind when you think veg-tan, but you have probably heard the names of many other veg-tan leathers without even realizing it.  These are just a few of the many veg-tan leathers available besides the classic natural veg-tan:

English Bridle Leather:

English Bridle Stock Colors
W & C Stock Color Swatches

Wickett & Craig and Herman Oak in USA and Sedgwick in England are the big names in this English Bridle Leather ( and vegetable tanned leather, in general: I highly recommend you their check their websites for more detailed info).

English Bridle is Vegetable tanned leather that’s been drum dyed and “hot stuffed” (impregnated with oils and waxes) to give it a great look and slightly waxy feel.  You see this leather a lot in thicker applications like belts, knife sheaths and horse tack, but a full range of thickness can be purchased from 2oz and up, so wallets and other small goods are also common.

Bridle leather can’t be cased and tooled like natural veg-tan, but it can be printed with just pressure (unlike most chrome-tan, which usually requires heat).

English Bridle stamped
Brown W & C English Bridle with stamps

Horween Veg-Tan:

 

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Horween Tannery in Chicago has at least 7 types of straight vegetable tanned leathers on their full tannage list (including shell Cordovan).  I’ve personally had the chance to work with Essex, Dublin, and Rockford.  These leathers are great to work with and beautiful, but truth be told, they look and behave much like Horween’s chrome-tanned leathers.

European Veg-tan:

 

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A while ago, my wife bought a the small leather bag (pictured above) made in Florence Italy (it had a big “Genuine Leather” tag), but the little information card included about the company that made it, went into detail about how it was made from full grain Italian vegetable-tanned leather.  Since then, I’ve been noticing more and more examples of European vegetable tanned leathers and products made from them.  Many of them in “softer” applications (purses, small bags, garments, etc) than you’d see for other veg-tan leathers like bridle leather and natural veg-tan.  The leathers look and feel great, but visibly there  isn’t much difference in the look and feel between these leathers and other non-veg-tan garment weight leathers I’ve seen.   Buttero is a very well know brand of Italian veg-tan.

Common Myths and Exaggerations and Partial truths:

There are a lot of claims about the superiority of veg-tan vs chrome-tan; most have a grain of truth or are based on the qualities of some of the veg-tan leathers that are most commonly found, but many of the articles out there also smell of marketing spin.  I’ve found that the best, most objective information can be found on the websites of the tanneries that produce these leathers, whereas there’s a lot more spin from companies who are selling the products.

 

Let’s add some nuance to the common myths about veg-tan:

Veg-tan is thicker:

I’ve seen this come up several times in articles about veg-tan (just like it did with full grain), and I don’t really understand where exactly this idea comes from. Veg-tan, just like any other leather, can be split to any thickness (Wickett & Craig offers from 2oz-14oz). While it’s true that you tend to see chrome-tan more often in thinner applications (soft bags, garments, and upholstery) and veg-tan more in thicker products (things like belts and holsters), there’s nothing about the tanning method itself that would make the leather inherently thicker.

Veg-tan doesn’t come in bright colors:

While it’s true that the big name veg-tan tanneries offer mostly earth-tones as their “stock” colors, once again, nothing about vegetable tanning makes bright colors impossible.  I’ve gotten my hands on Wickett & Craig bridle leather in bright blue, chili-pepper red, spruce green and cool grey.  I’ve also bought Horween Essex and Rockford in lollipop red, regatta blue, periwinkle and bold orange. Yes it’s less common than, say, black brown and tan, but there are lots of bright veg-tan options out there.

 

Veg-Tan is more breathable:

As I covered in my full grain article, a leather’s breathability doesn’t have much to do with the type of leather; it has to do with how it’s finished.  I feel like calling any leather “breathable” is kind of inaccurate:  Leather, in general, isn’t a material that allows a lot of air to pass through, that’s why it’s the best material for biker jackets.  Yes, many veg-tan leathers are finished “lightly” so, in theory, they’d have marginally more breathability when compared to some heavily finished chrome-tan leathers, however heavily waxed/oiled veg-tan leathers like those used in horse tack or waterproofed goods wouldn’t breathe much at all.

Veg-tan has more “Life:

This is one of those kinda silly abstract things that sound nice when describing veg-tan, so we can’t be sure what the articles are actually talking about.   I suppose maybe they mean that veg-tan leather has a more natural feel?   If you were to hand two pieces of leather to someone who claims veg-tan has more life, one chrome-tan with a minimal finish in an earth-tone color and the other a veg-tan in a bright color with a glossy finish, I’d expect they’d say the first had more “life.”  How “natural” a leather feels is a very subjective thing and really won’t be effected much by the way the leather is tanned.

Only veg-tan will get a patina:

Another way to describe “patina” is a desirable layer of dirt and oil your leather item has acquired over time with use.  With time this layer will develop on almost any leather (except PU coated leathers).  It will develop much more quickly and much more noticeably on leathers with a minimal or no finish coat (which is why you see it mentioned a lot when referring to products made from natural veg-tan).  If you want the  leather that will get “maximum patina” look for a white suede or nubuck, because they will suck up oil and stains like a sponge.  If you want less patina, go for a dark colored leather with a glossy finish. Whether you buy chrome or veg won’t make the difference.

Veg-tan is “organic”: It’s made with barks, branches, and leaves:

A family member once asked me if we had any “organic ” leather, and while some sites use this term when talking about veg-tan, I don’t feel you can call any commercially produced leather “organic.”  Leather tanning is a chemical process, and while the “tanning” part of the veg-tan process does come from natural sources (plant extracts), they also use salt, lime, and all sorts of other chemicals in the dyeing and finishing process.  If you want the most natural leather possible, go for natural veg or better yet, brain tanned leather.

Veg-tan is more durable can last an entire lifetime and is bio-degradable when it ceases to be used/maintained:

You’ll see this one a lot, but you can’t have both: it’s impossible to claim that veg-tan lasts longer and is more durable than chrome-tan while, at the same time, claiming that it breaks down more easily in the environment.  Those two things are diametrically opposed.

In reality, both veg-tan and chrome-tan will last a comparably long time if properly maintained.  Natural veg-tan will tend to dry out and crack more easily if not maintained on a regular basis, but that doesn’t mean it will quickly disappear in the environment.  As far as leather being biodegradable goes, you can go to a museum and find very old leather items (hundreds or thousands of years old) these artifacts pre-date chrome-tanning by hundreds of years; so, while conditions have a lot to do with a material’s breakdown, any type of leather will take a long time to be reabsorbed into the environment.  Don’t think you’re doing the environment a huge favor buying one type of leather over another.

“Much Better” for the environment:

We touched on this on the above point, but typing “What is vegetable tanned leather?” into a search engine can give some really strongly worded results when talking about the environment impact of veg-tan vs chrome-tanned leather;  the words “harmful to the environment” gets used when talking about chrome-tan and “good for the environment” “eco-friendly” and the like, when talking about veg-tan.  Just reading some of these articles, you’d think the skin falls right off the cow’s body when it dies peacefully of old age, autumn leaves fall on top, and veg-tan is harvested the following spring…

While, yes, there have been some horribly bad environmental impacts in countries in the developing world due to chrome leather tanneries, the fact of the matter is that making leather is a chemical process that preserves something that would normally rot in a natural environment.  This means that tanning agents are not environmentally neutral.  Whether those chemicals come from Chromium Salt, Vegetable Tannins, or Brains (yes you can use brains to tan leather), when done on a large scale, the byproducts should be disposed of in the most environmentally responsible way possible.    So, yes, while there is some consensus that the agents used in vegetable tanning are slightly less harmful to the environment, Large-scale veg-tan tanneries do not have a pipe going out the back that dumps the leftover tanning solutions into a nearby creek or river (or at least I hope they don’t).  Herman Oak (one of the big veg-tan tanneries), describes on their webpage how they file 11 reports per year and keep 130 logs regarding the environmental laws they must comply with.

On a related side-note: while the tanneries who make vegetable tanned leather do speak very highly of their veg-tan product, they don’t slant towards hyperbole as much as many sellers of finished veg-tan leather goods.  Herman Oak, for example, has a great page where they show the differences in the veg-tan and chrome-tan process without exaggerating the differences.  They also have  a detailed page where they talk about their environmental impact, and go on to explain how many things are toxic in high concentrations, including things that people would consider “organic”, like the agents used to make veg-tan leather.

Personally, I feel that it’s much more important to buy leather from tanneries with responsible environmental practices and working conditions, regardless of the tanning processes.  It’s very possible that buying a chrome-tanned leather from a country or region of the world with stricter environmental laws (like USA or the EU) is more likely to have less environmental impact than buying veg-tan from an area of the world with lower environmental standards and poor working conditions.   If you do want to find fully vegetable tanned leathers sourced from the USA look to Herman Oak, Wickett & Craig, and the specific vegetable tannages from Horween.

Another thing we do here at our company to lessen our environmental impact is make an effort to use as much of our leather as possible (we send very little scrap leather to the dump). We also try to purchase and use scrap from other factories to make many of our products (see my article on where I get my leather for details on how we use scrap.)

So that’s vegetable tanned leather!  If you want a more natural look and feel, go for natural veg-tan.  If you’re concerned about your environmental impact, go for a natural veg-tan sourced from a tannery in a country with a good environmental reputation.  Enjoy the look smell and feel of leather.

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2 thoughts on “Vegetable Tanned Leather: Much more variety than you think.

    1. Yes, any leather will develop a patina but lighter colors will develop one more quickly. Additionally a leather with a more glossy finish will get patina much more slowly than a leather with a nude finish.

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