Monday, June 6, 2016

Fez, Morocco - The Tannery

The Tannery

One of the many textile – related side trips in Morocco was to a large tannery in the city of  Fez.  Morocco is known for its high quality leather textiles (as well as carpets, jewelry and ceramics).

Animal skins were probably the first textiles used for clothing and shelter.  The term skin is meant as the outer covering layer of the animal body, which would include the fur, hair and feathers of the animal as well.  Animal skins were, and are still, used in rituals and ceremonies. Leather is a term for animal skin (goats, cattle, sheep, pigs, horses and  other animals) from which the hair or fur has been removed and prepared by tanning, ether by exposure to weather or chemicals.  The ostrich is the only bird used for leather. Evidence of tanning and the use of leather for clothing was found in ancient Egypt (2420-2258 BCE).  Leather “nets” were made by ancient Egyptians from a single piece of hide by cutting small slits, allowing the leather to expand.  The “nets “ were used to protect the clothing of sailors, workmen and soldiers. Suede, a popular apparel leather, is made by napping, running the skin under a coarse emery board.

At the tannery, which is in the middle of the walled city (the Medina) visitors are free to examine the most beautiful leather goods in their retail space and also view the actual workmen and their vats of various solutions and dyes.  By ascending a 3 story, winding staircase and walking along an outside wooden ramp I could view below (from a safe distance) the tanning process.  Accompanied by one of the workers, the scene resembled a vast ancient work yard of activities.  The processes used are the same as those employed centuries ago.

Animal skins (goat, sheep, cow and camel) are delivered to the tannery from the abattoir. The skins are then placed in limestone baths for three days to kill vermin which may be present in any left over fur or hair.  The skins are then rinsed and rescraped.  I saw piles of fleece remnants which were of poor quality and, therefore, not used for commercial purposes, but for filling leather ottomans, called poofs.  (At one of the carpet houses the carpet seller showed a rug made of this type of inferior fibers.  The fibers were very coarse and an entire knot cold be plucked from the surface of the carpet easily. Just a cautionary note!)
The rinsed skins are then submerged in bath solutions made from bird dung and finally treated with vinegar as a fixative.  Only natural dyes are used (natural dyes are not fugitive, that is they do not run after the textile is finished.  Think of a red tee shirt in the laundry.  The skins in the dye vats are turned every 4 hours to ensure an even absorption of the pigments.

The quality of the workmanship is very evident in the finished leather products produced by the workers.  An entire floor of the retail space is devoted to apparel.  The most beautiful coats, jackets, hats in  the most beautiful rainbow of color choices.  The temptation to max out any line of credit you may have is overwhelming.  The ground floor featured bags and purses and wallets of every size and shape.  It was here I lost all control.  Of course, they also sold handmade slippers and shoes.

View of the 2 story retail area.  Note the hand carved and painted walls

  One interesting item for sale is the ottoman or “poof”, a leather footstool or small stool for sitting or even useful as a small side table.  They are usually round, although there were some square and rectangular ones.  You can purchase them already filled (with the aforementioned  fibers), or, because most would want to carry their purchase home and carry-on space is more precious than gold, they are unfilled and folded flat.  There were racks of these articles and one visitor mentioned that they thought they were pet beds. What do you think?

 I think if I had a retail pet supply shop I would be buying dozens in different colors and sizes.
I probably should have brought one home for our cat.

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