Dating as far back as the 11th century, the Chouara Tannery in Fez, Morocco is the oldest tannery in the world. Very little has changed in this historic site since then with much of the process of turning animal hides into usable leather, by washing, treating, smoothing, and coloring them, remaining the same. In this particular mode of tanning, the occupation of a tanner is considered one of the hardest, tiring and labour-intensive professions.
Using mainly sheep skin, goat skin, camel skin, and cow skin - goat and camel being the best quality - the tanning process is a lengthy one that requires great care and patience. Once the animal skins have been gathered, they are soaked in vasts that contain a mixture of cow urine, quicklime, water, and salt for up to three days, helping to loosen excess fat, flesh, and hair that remain on the skins.
Once cleaned, the skins are then laid out to dry on surrounding rooftops. When the skins are dry, they are washed and soaked in a mixture of water and pigeon stool making them supple and soft. Pigeon stool contains ammonia that acts as a softening agent, making the skin more malleable, and also loosens the animal hair from the skin. The tanner then uses their bare feet to knead the skins for up to three hours to achieve the desired softness.
Once optimum softness is achieved, the skins are then dyed using natural colorants such as poppy flower (red), indigo (blue), henna (orange), cedar wood (brown), mint (green), and saffron (yellow).
The skins are once again dried after which they are cut and sold for use for products such as bags and shoes.
(sources 1; 2)
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