At the recent leather industry show in Shanghai all the talk on the vegetable tanning front was about new uses for vegetable tanned leather. It is curious but really they were all old uses, but reborn with contemporary knowledge and process methods making vegetable tanned leather perfect once again.
The three areas being reclaimed, at least in part, are footwear soles, automobile upholstery and interior design. For centuries leather was the only material for soles but in the early 20th century rubber was found to be cheaper and then with various plastic it was felt that ease of wear and reduction in slip meant that “sole leather” would slip into the niche market of expensive Welted footwear. But now lighter weights, greater flexibility and improved durability mean sole leather is having a revival helped as well by an enthusiasm for classical styles. Even some companies using direct injection soling methods have found ways to insert panels of vegetable tanned soling into the outsold. One member of TEPF indicated that even tennis footwear with vegetable tanned soles had been sighted. We await photographic evidence.
The automobile sector is another where work by some TEPF members has put various vegetable extracts back into the frame, since in many regards what has been happening has been a desperate attempt to copy the features and benefits of vegetable tanning – its characteristic touch, smell and wearing characteristics – without actually using it.
Vegetable tannin can create difficulty when trying to achieve good light fastness, low weight per square centimetre and some other chemical and physical requirements. Determined work to amend the characteristics of some vegetable extracts on the market combined with renewed consumer demands for leather that “looks and behaves like leather” is making some automobile companies reconsider their offer.
Vegetable tanned leather has never really slipped away from interior design but it is the renewed intensity and novelty which is creating impact, made more obvious by the increasing demand for show piece houses and apartments from the ultra high net worth individuals around the world. Leather walls, leather doors, the interior of private elevators are all common. In office and apartment lobbies reception and information desks are topped with perfectly stitched and fitted leather, moulded perfectly to shape.
The ability of vegetable tanned leather to add to the acoustic of a room, to be shaped to fit surfaces large and small and to be used as a flooring material just evidences its versatility. The fabulous leather floor in the shoe department of Selfridges in London is typical.
If you have great examples of any of these uses for vegetable tanned leathers do leave us a comment or send them to us.