Tanning Leather: Not a Lost Art

Many years ago, in Morocco, I was able to tour an ancient tannery and see some of the process of creating beautiful leather.  I use leather for many projects and although I do some brain tanning myself, I purchase all of my truly “tanned” leathers from others.

Click the image to visit the Moroccan National Tourist Office on Facebook

Click the image to visit the Moroccan National Tourist Office
on Facebook. If you are interested in a description of the tannery at Fez, have a look at Becca’s post about it over on AlwaysCarryOn.

One very important lesson about tanning I learned in Africa was that I never want to work in a African tannery when it’s 100 degrees in the shade.  The smell makes a feed lot in Texas almost seem habitable and hits one in the face like a dense fog.

Well anyway, Markus at the huarache blog has done it again… forced me to steal his excellent article and link to his great research in Mexico.  The post gets a very close inside look into the tanning process; a somewhat secretive business in my experience.

img_0237img_0646img_0160Great set-up for the beams.  Spacious, indoors with a cleanable floor.

img_0218I think anyone who has tanned hides will appreciate this solid set-up.

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img_0782This is just a picture preview.  For much more in-depth information, have a look at the article on the Huarache Blog by clicking here.

I appreciate this work so much for having done some myself.  Tanning hides is tough, back-breaking labor that goes unappreciated.  It’s good to know that there are still folks out there keeping these important skills alive.  More importantly, to know that there are alternatives to corporate factories producing little more than garbage and waste.  It must be tough on these small family businesses but I hope, for all our sakes, that they find a way to survive.

http://huaracheblog.wordpress.com/2013/07/29/taller-de-curtiduria-gonzalez-making-the-best-vegetable-tanned-huarache-leather/

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Dép lốp or “Ho Chi Min” Sandals

I was looking up a link for someone and rediscovered the video today showing how to make tough and durable sandals from discarded tires.  This style is well-known in Southeast Asia, particularly in poorer areas.

https://photos.travelblog.org/Photos/20411/111103/f/749561-viet-cong-made-sandals-from-truck-tyres-1.jpg

If you are interested in sandal-making, you can hardly go wrong with this design if you have access to old tires.  I suggest watching the video if only for the remarkably sharp knife this maker is using.  Using tire material is a little heavy but will truly last a lifetime.  The straps fit purely by friction so they are continuously adjustable while the waterproofness of the material makes them perfect for the wetlands and jungle.

I understand this style was created in the 1940s when old tires became abundant and some creative shoemaker had a Eureka moment.  There is also a short write-up on this style on the always interesting Huarache Blog if you are seeking more information about this shoe.

Another step toward self-sufficiency and off-grid knowledge for the Mayhem Shoe Collective.

Simple but Ingenious

Tying your own shoes –

Before looking at the ethnographic literature I experimented with tying up some simple sandals with mixed success.  It turns out that it’s not as simple as one might think.  Now I’m a connoisseur and am always making mental notes when I see old depictions, or in the old world, images on statues.  For simple, soft lace sandals, the Tarahuamara style works perfectly.  A single lace does everything you need.

DSC_0139 (1)DSC_0138Learning from the past may save us from losing our future.

Huaraches!

There are still Huaraches north of old Mexico.  As I prepare to resole my huaraches I thought it might be good to look back on them as a very viable hand-made shoe.

For a long time while searching for huarache construction techniques, I could only find the simplest tire sandals and many links to “barefoot” style running sandals.  However, a few years ago, I found Markus Kittner’s Huarache Blog and scoured it for inspiration and design secrets from real huaracheros in old Mexico.  He has done excellent work in documenting the process.

My first beautiful huaraches drying after being soaked to shape to my foot.  They were subsequently oiled and slicked down.  I owe much to the Huarache blog for so many great images and descriptions of traditional huaraches.

As a craftsman of sorts, I understand that making a “one-off” of something does not imply expertise.  Only replication builds a real understanding and mastery of the object being produced. However, this is not my first leather working or shoemaking project but a major improvement on a theme.  This style shoe is made on a last.  The shoe lasts I purchased on Ebay have finally been used to actually make a shoe.  I documented the process as it came together as best I could; my mistakes and changes included in the process.  This is not really a “how to” recipe for making a huarache but shows the process I used.

The lasts I found on Ebay.  The sole cut out, punched for strapping and nailed to the last.

The last shown here fits me well but are an Oxford dress shoe style, meaning they run a little long in the toe.  As I am making an open-toe design, I let the last hang over slightly in the front, squaring the sole to the shape of my actual foot.  New lasts are pricey (ca. 50 euros/$70 US), but I think it will pay in the long run to invest in a better design for myself and those people I might make shoes for.

Wetting out the first strap.

I didn’t show the strap cutting process as there is little to be learned about that.  It is a skill in itself, even if you have a strap cutter.  My Osbourne strap cutter can be seen in the upper right of this photo

Since this project was experimental, I used scrap leather, meaning I could only get about three foot (one meter) straps.  In future, I’ll probably use 6 foot or longer pieces (2+ meters).

Nailing the strap to the last.

I pre-punched holes in the mid-sole and away we go.  A little tallow on the straps helps cut the friction of the leather but ended up being not worth the trouble.  They were kept damp throughout the process.

Placing the twining thong.

This is a signature of the style I chose.  The vamp or tongue-like piece was later removed as I didn’t like the way it looked.  I’ll experiment more with that later.

Lacing and twining.

Unlike normal, I completely finished the first shoe and removed it from the last to check size and shape to determine any major changes that would need to be made.

A heel piece was added and laced up the back. I think this step shows the evolution of the strap sandal to the modern huarache.

The straps running under the mid-sole look like a problem here but are ultimately skived down, dampened, and hammered flat.

Straps ends as added in. Longer straps would lessen the ends here.

I used simple wire nails (as is traditional) to attach the soles but sewing would work too.

Ends to be trimmed and skived, and a finished sole.

Pulled from the last, they actually matched.  I don’t know why I was surprised but that made me really happy.

Preparing to nail the sole.

The method I chose to attach the rubber is fast and efficient, and I suspect rather tough.  The nails are pressed through the leather and rubber into a thick leather scrap below.  Otherwise, you would need to pry it up from the work board.  One surprise I learned over time was that the nails actually wore off on the underside before the rubber.

Nailing the sole.

Bending the nails in preparation for clinching.

The nails are bent over (inward) to prepare to “clinch” them.  There are no photos of this part of the process but this was done by setting the shoe back upright on a small anvil and hammering the nails down tight with a punch.  The pre-bending causes the nail to curl inward and back up into the sole.  Voila!  The Huaraches below have about five miles of hiking on them now and they’re beginning to have some character.

Huaraches you say?  Do tough guys wear such things?  In an era of cheap, slave-made garments, its easy to forget how self-reliant our ancestors were for such things as raiment. I include this photo of Capitan Alcantar I found on the Huarache Blog as a great historical image of a man of action wearing his huaraches and ready for war.

Click the image for more historic photos like this.

I hope this prompts someone out there in the world to take on the project of making their own shoes, whether for survival, uniqueness, or just as a challenge.  Making for yourself is a small act of revolution against a bad system.

Early Burras from Uruapan

Some very thick leather shoes. They would last a remarkably long time under the worst conditions.

Huarache Blog

I have posted about the traditional Mexican Burra Footwear already a couple of times on this blog and consider Burras another fascinating area of footwear research. These Burras I was lucky to photograph also at the Bata Museum in Toronto, their origins are from the 1950’s Uruapan area of Mexico. Although I have never seen a similar Burra design during my research in Mexico.

IMG_4433SML   Mexican Burras, Burras

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The Crafting of Traditional Vegetable Tanned Huarache Footwear Leather

I have raved about the Huarache Blog before. Here’s a re-run of the excellent post about how real leather is still made by hand in Mexico.

Huarache Blog

Unlike most mainstream footwear, Mexican Huarache footwear leather is still vegetable tanned using tree bark. Fewer tanneries in the world still offer vegetable tanned leathers because of the slower tanning process and higher costs of the natural raw materials used.

The natural benefits of vegetable tanned leather are:

1. The organic tanning process is non toxic and has a much lesser impact on the environment and the health of the tanners (chrome tannery workers have a 20%-50% higher chance of cancer risk).

2. The leather maintains some of its natural qualities to stretch and adapt to your foot shape.

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A few months ago in a post titled “Taller De Curtiduria González – Vegetable Tanning the Best Huarache Leathers” I introduced Jesús and Antonio González the father and son tanners in Colima, Mexico who still practice this traditional and centuries old tanning method.

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The González tannery offers a variety…

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Mid-Cut Huaraches From Tuxpan, Jalisco

These are beauties.

Huarache Blog

Tuxpan in Southern Jalisco is a small town well known for its Tacos “Tuxpenos” and less known for its unique Mid-Cut Huarache style.

That being nowadays said their is so little demand for the Tuxpan Huarache “Tejido con Talonera Alta” that it can only be made on to order by the only remaining Huarachero in Tuxpan, Armando Ortiz, whose other styles can also be seen in The Huarache Directory HERE

tuxpan side 34

tuxpan back 34

tuxpan multiview  Huaracheria Ortiz

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Ghillie Making at Winter Count 2014

One of the many things taught at Winter Count this year was shoe making in the form of carbatina or ghillies.  These are relatively simple shoes notable for their one piece construction and generally involve very little sewing.  I am interested in how things are learned and for me, the process is more important than any other aspect.  Hopefully, students take away some knowledge that they can apply beyond the class setting and in an afternoon can learn something that they can use for life.

ghillieHistorical examples vary widely but tend to have a lot of similarity in the complex toe-cap.  Shoes are a difficult piece of clothing and protection because the fit is critical and even minor problems with the shoe will impact the feet in a negative way.

Marx-Etzel2The toe cap is formed by strips of leather overlapping which gives flexibility and room for expansion.  The simplest forms are one piece but better versions are found with insoles and outer soles to extend the life and create a sturdier shoe.

DSCN4029 DSCN4030 DSCN4031 DSCN4033 DSCN4034These were all made from premium oak tanned leather (ca. 8 oz. or 3.2 mm) which proves to be tough to cut but provides a long lasting shoe.  It was a great set of students in the classes and I think we ended up with 17 pair of shoes in the end.

An earlier post describing my journey into Ghillies can be found HERE.