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History of Hides

The art of working animal hides into tanned (preserved and weather-proofed) furs and leathers dates back to the beginning of civilization. Take any human society in the world and there will be a history of tanning animal skins. Deer to bears, goats to seals: these animals would be hunted primarily for meat, but the skin has always been another valuable resource not to be wasted.

Animal skin, like ours, is warm, waterproof, and strong. Hides (the skin once it has been softened and treated) have been used to make clothes, shoes, shelters, blankets, bags, boats, decorations, musical instruments (e.g. drums), and baby’s nappies! Even the writing parchment was made from animal hide as early as the Bronze ages.

Both historically and in the present day, earth-based cultures around the world have used skins for not only these practical purposes but also spiritual. In many cases, skins are painted to embody certain meanings and messages, for instance, to heal when people are sick, or to tell historical stories or document important events.

The term tanning comes from ‘tannin’ – an acidic chemical found in tree bark. ‘Tannin’ was the medieval word for ‘oak bark’, which was perhaps the first source of this chemical. One of the traditional ways to soften skins is to soak them in tannin extracted from trees. Other substances commonly used are animal brains or poo! As these methods of tanning smell so bad when done on a large scale that tanneries are generally isolated from towns.

The method of tanning by hand is still the same as this ancient technique. Taking the skin off the animal, removing all of the flesh and sinew, and working in the tanning substance all involve working closely and manually with the skin to create the hide. A great deal of leather, fur, and hide production has been industrialised and is now produced on a large scale. Unfortunately, this mass production has come with a change in method, in particular keeping animals in horrible conditions and killing them for the purpose of skins and using lots of nasty chemicals for tanning. Thankfully, the traditional and far less impactful techniques we use at Naturally Useful are still as effective today as they were when our ancestors were experimenting with and discovering them.