The Perfect Piece of Leather

Or how do you get from this... this?

a piece of hairy cow hide

a sturdy parchment, centuries old

Bassins of lime to soak the skins in

Parchment technology (or the art of transforming a smelly piece of cow, veal or goat skin into the sturdiest of all writing supports) is one of the main reasons we can still read manuscripts from Xth century Persia. The simple fact that these parchments have survived this long, offering evidence of the beauty and finesse of Koranic calligraphy through the ages is perhaps worth all the pains that tanners have endured to produce the 'perfect piece of leather'.

The tanneries are rarely the most coveted neighborhood in town. Be it in Fes or Marrakech, the smell emanating from back alleys and courtyards keeps most dwellers and tourists at bay. Dawn is a good time to visit, when the city and the tanners awake to the new day, when smells have only started to pervade the air.

As we walked the quiet streets of a waking Marrakech, we followed our noses towards the tannery district- easily recognizable by the rancid odors; odors from the pigeon excrement, lime, chemical dies and other sweetnesses that are used in this trade.

Skins are delivered in the mornings- cow, goat, sheep, veal skins. Most still have hair- though the sheep skins have been cleaned for their wool (a wool that won't be used for clothes- who want's to wear a dead sheep's wool, no decent Muslim I can assure you-, but to stuff mattresses perhaps...). A few days in the lime basins, then the pigeon droppings basins (both used for their acidic properties) and that hair has been softened enough to be scraped off with a great metal tool (see above). Skins awaiting their scraping or dying phase hang from all corners of the tannery....

Mimosa from Brazil- the leather gets its brownish taints from the Mimosa

The final phase is the most treacherous- dying. Tanners used to revel in luxuries of organic dies-poppy, saffron, indigo..
Today, only the browns are natural (mimosa tainted); all other colors are dangerously chemical (a quick look at many of the tanners reveals the dangers of the trade-coughs, malformations etc.).