The traditional process for tanning leather is undoubtedly smelly, yet this smell is a small price to pay for witnessing such a unique and interesting interesting sight.; where else would you get the chance to see the men tread and rinse skins in mysterious liquids and dyes before scraping and stretching the hides using traditional techniques. Although it is possible to see the tanneries without a guide, it is a lot easier with; it is important to agree a price first and beware of excessive demands.
For the price of a guide you should also be gifted a sprig of mint to hold to your face to mask the smell. However, here at Marrakech Riad we would like to give you a taste (thankfully, not a literal taste) of the traditional Tanning process so you can witness the Marrakesh tanneries without the need for mint and without haggling for a guide.
Step 1 – Iferd
The traditional process of tanning leather, as witnessed in the Marrakech Tanneries, begins with soaking the skins in a fermented solution of pigeon poo and tannery waste, known as iferd. The hide ferments I the iferd for 3 day in the summer and up to 6 days in the winter before they are squeezed out and left to dry. The process of tanning skins is symbolic: according to tanners, this first step of the tanning process is where the skin eats, drinks and sleeps before being ‘reborn’ from the water.
Step 2 – Lime and Argan-kernel pits
After fermenting in the iferd, the skins are squeezed out and put to dry. Hair is scraped off before the skins go into a pit of lime and argan-kernel ash. This is a good example of how Moroccan society functions as an economical, environmentally friendly society, making sure very little goes to waste and reusing byproducts of other industries. This lime and argan-kernel both lasts 15-20 days in the summer and 30 in the winter, working to remove any remaining flesh and hair to prepare the skin for the tanning products.
Step 3 – Qasriya
After being washed, the skins spend 24 hours in a qasriya, a round pit of ye more pigeon poo and water. At this stage the skin becomes thinner and stretcher. At this qasriya stage, the skin is said to receive naks, a spirit.
Step 4 – The Tanning process begins
Then begins the actual tanning process. The skins are scraped with pottery shards and beaten with alum, oil and water in preparation to receive the dye. Traditional tanners only ever use plants to dye their leather – that is, roots, bark, seeds and fruits. The solution depends on the type of hide used – cow, camel, goat, sheep – and the colour the leather will be dyed. For example, the infamous yellow babouche is traditionally made using pomegranates!! The dye is a applied by hand, as it has always been, before the skin is left to dry out in the hot Moroccan sun.
Step 5 – A Smooth Finish
Finally, the skins are repeatedly stretched between two ropes to make them smoother and more flexible. This traditional process is difficult work and is only carried out by the younger, more able-bodied men. This treading stage is said to give the skin life again and thus leather is born to be created into handcrafted thus leather products including travel bags and satchels, poofs, babouche slippers and more.
Here at Marrakech Riad we strongly advice you visit the Marrakech Tanneries during your visit to the red city so you can witness the unique, traditional process for yourself. You can find the Marrakech tanneries at the beginning of our ‘Leather and Tanning’ Medina walk which guides across the ancient city revealing the secrets of the traditional trades. If you would like to find out more about the free MarrakechRiad app, the ‘Leather and Tanning’ walk or any of our other medina walks, then our Riad staff would be happy to help.