The punishing labor required to create leather handbags and shoes is accomplished in one of the most well-known tanneries in Fez, Morocco. The city is Morocco’s third largest city and home to one of the most interesting medinas in the country. Workers stretch hides and dye leather in 95 F heat to ultimately produce coats, handbags, babouche, and other leather goods such as poufs, belts, and hats. Goat skins more readily absorb dyes than sheep or cowhides, which is why the colors of Moroccan leather are richer and more saturated.
Many of the items will be exported to France, Spain, and India; much will end up in the local souks to tempt travelers. Fez is home to three ancient tanneries, but the most famous is Chouara which is almost a thousand years old.
With over 9,000 maze like alleyways filled to the brim with shops selling just about everything, one needs a guide to lead you to the hidden tannery. We walked through narrow crowded path to enter a leather shop and climbed the stairs to an outdoor terrace overlooking the vats. A sprig of mint under my Pandemic mask camouflaged the strong acrid stench. The tannery consists of a honeycomb layout stretching across a huge courtyard of sorts, stone vats filled with various dyes and foul-smelling fluid.
Centuries old technique requires workers to soak the skins in cow urine for several days; later, workers use pigeon excrement to smooth the leather. Workers stand barefoot in vats kneading and soaking the skins, the kneading softens the skins. Three days of treatment includes skinning any leftover hair and fat on the skins.
Standing in the vats, the workers go about their duties, ending up with their own skin dyed in various colors as a result.
Various fresh products are used to produce the different hues. Mint, for example, is used to achieve a green color; cedar wood for brown; henna for orange; saffron for yellow; indigo for blue; and poppy flower for red. Olive oil is also sometimes used to give the leather a shiny gloss.
Afterwards, the products are dried on the roofs of the Medina – and then, to market.
The hard work, all done manually, is carried out by men only – a skill that is passed down from generation to generation.
The ancient tannery is one of three in the Old Medina, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1981.