If you visit Morocco, a stop in Fes, the “symbolic heart of Morocco,” might change everything you know about the leather you buy and wear. As the home of many great dynasties, Fes is also the epi-center of leather tanneries for one of Morocco’s largest exports.
The Tanners Quarter in Fes is quite impressive. All of the tanning is done by hand using techniques passed down for centuries. The tanning profession is tremendously labor intensive.
You know you are getting close to the Tanners Quarters simply by the smell. To put it mildly, it’s pungent. This is where the raw hides from cows, camels, goats and sheep are collected and sorted for tanning. Camel and goat hides are said to be the best quality. As you enter the tannery, you are given a sprig of mint to keep nearby to help distract your senses.
Hides are prepped for processing by first soaking for 2-3 days in special vats containing a mixture of cow urine, quicklime, water, and salt which loosens fat, flesh and hair. Next, the hides are scraped and soaked in diluted acidic pigeon excrement to soften them. Then, they are dried on the rooftops.
Once the hides dry, they go into stone vats containing different colored dyes which are arranged like honeycombs. What’s incredible is that some of these same vats have been used for centuries and are still fully functional today.
The tannery workers get into the vats and literally stomp the skins in the natural dyes much like a vineyard worker would stomp grapes. As you can imagine, their arms and legs become the color of the dye. The dyes used are vegetable dyes such as saffron(yellow) poppy flowers (red), henna (orange), cedar wood (brown), mint (green), and indigo (blue). The dyed hides are dried again and then sold to leather craftsmen to make shoes, handbags, and other leather products.
This unique art of tanning is only done by men and passed down from one generation to another. The Chouwara Tannery is the largest of three in Fes. The operation has been making leather good for more than a thousand years. It is quite a process to witness and it certainly changes your perspective when buying leather goods in the market.
If you go:
- Take a camera. The craft of tanning has been done in Fes since the Middle Ages. It is spectacular to witness this craft with your own eyes and something truly worth sharing in photos.
- Morning visits are best. The dye colors are most vivid in the morning and the pungent smell is at a minimum before the heat of the day.
- This is the place to get your leather. If you plan of buying any leather goods while in Morocco–here’s the place to do it. You will find a wide variety of leather products right from the tannery and you will have great memories to go with them from Fes.