Tanneries Specialize to Survive Tough Times

Aug 28, 2020  | 6 min  | Ep4602

Historians believe tanneries - where craftsmen turned animal hides into leather – first appeared at least 5,000 years ago in villages in the Middle East.

Today, communities still gather together workers - such as these in Pennsylvania - to process cattle and other livestock hides using method not so different from those used by their hunter-gatherer forefathers.

Tim Ng, board member, Leather and Hide Council of America: “The tanning industry is one of the oldest industries in the world ... It’s a direct by-product of the meat industry. And so, as we harvest animals for meat, just like the Native Americans, we try to utilize all of the components of the animal. That skin is about 6 to 10 percent of the animal weight and so if we can capture that and use that for other products, that helps keep it out of landfills.”

But tanneries are becoming increasingly rare; while colonial America had a tannery in nearly every town, these businesses have been rapidly disappearing. The number of U.S. tanneries with 50 or more employees dropped from 86 in 1993 to just 20 in 2018.

According to the federal government, water treatment and other improvements to protect human health and the environment were costly for some tanneries. Many closed while others relocated to countries with lower-cost labor. International disputes  and the growth in synthetic materials have also hurt the industry, as well as disruptions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tim Ng, board member, Leather and Hide Council of America: “Leather is a natural product. It’s breathable, it’s flexible, it wears over time. With synthetics, they are typically petroleum-based, which is a finite resource.”

The tanneries that have survived have done so largely through specialization or a focus on exporting.

Tim Ng is the director of West Des Moines, Iowa-based C.K. International Ltd., which buys and sells pigskin internationally. Pigskin accounts for only about 10 percent of the world’s leather. C.K. International helps connect U.S. packing plants with buyers of pigskin, mostly in Asia, who then use the leather in other products.

The majority of leather is made from cattle hides, and used in shoes and boots. But automobile and furniture use remain significant.

Over 90 percent of cattle hides produced in the U.S. are exported – China still being a key buyer. The cattle hide industry’s export values slid 25 percent between 2018 and 2019, when $1.2 billion worth of hides were shipped elsewhere. And with the Covid-19 pandemic creating havoc, the slide has continued well into 2020. Still, Ng tries to remain optimistic despite these major disruptions and depressed prices.

Tim Ng, board member, Leather and Hide Council of America: “As we have more transparency into where products come from and as consumers demand that, I think the industry is really positioning themselves well to be in play and be part of that discussion.”

In Curwensville, Pennsylvania, the leather tannery Wickett & Craig brought dozens of jobs to town when the now 153-year-old company moved there from Toronto, Canada in 1989. It still employs about 90 people in the town of about 2,500, and is one of just a few large U.S. tanneries remaining that uses plant-based compounds, known as vegetable tannins, on the leather.

Most others use chromium tanning, a method introduced in the 1850s and viewed as the most efficient processing method. There is a small risk – if exposed to extremely high temperatures – that chromium can convert into a type known to be a carcinogen. U.S. regulations, however, govern proper disposal and water treatment for all tanneries.

Matt Bressler, vice president, Wickett & Craig: “Vegetable tanning is the oldest form of tanning. It all comes from tree bark extract…These trees are grown for the tanning industry.”

And while the chromium tanneries can process a hide into leather in a week, vegetable tanneries require six to eight weeks from start to finish.

Matt Bressler, vice president, Wickett & Craig: “When you get a pallet of hides, you have no idea what you have in there… We’ve tried to turn it as much into a science so that we can be consistent. I mean, the cattle are never going to be consistent… so those are the variables every tanner has to deal with.”

The Wickett & Craig leather factory processes nearly 5,000 cattle hides a month, most from Charolais, Simmental and Limousine cattle because of the lighter colored hides. Cattle brands and any other imperfections on the hide reduce the value.

Matt Bressler, vice president, Wickett & Craig: “Most of them are from the Dakotas or from Toronto and other Canadian regions. The farther north you go, generally the better the hides are because there’s less summer and hence the less bug bites, less scratching and things like that.”

Bressler says the chromium-tanned leathers tend to serve the automotive and garment industries while Wickett & Craig might have their thicker leather used in equestrian equipment, gun holsters and handbags.

Bressler says most Americans fail to appreciate the quality of work done in the U.S. regardless of tanning method.

Matt Bressler, vice president, Wickett & Craig: “Why should they pay … $40, $50 or $60 for a genuine leather belt that the leather came from Wickett & Craig when they can buy one at Walmart for $12.95?.… The end consumer is probably not as knowledgeable as they probably should be but it’s getting better.”

By Colleen Bradford Krantz, colleen.krantz@iowapbs.org

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