We used google maps to navigate us through the maze of streets to the Chouara Tannery, which is both the oldest and largest of the three tanneries in Fez and we almost got there on our own. A local restaurant-er took us the final street to get there.
The Fez tannery is one of the most visited sights in Fez and has been around since the 11th century, so a bit over 1000 years. We were taken inside a leather shop and up several flights of stairs to reach a balcony overlooking the vats. We were given some time to photograph the tannery, before our guide gave us a brief explanation of the tannery and dyeing process. I will admit that I have a terrible sense of smell, so I didn’t find it too bad, however Andrew and the kids thought it was a very potent smell and were glad to leave it behind us.
During the first step of the process that animal hides, which are either cow, goat or sheep are drenched in cow urine, lime, salt and water. The purpose of this is to remove the fat, flesh and hair. Sheep hides remain soaking for 2 to 3 days and then the tanners use a knife to scrape off the hair fibers that remain before dyeing.
Top photo shows the dying vats on the left and the white vats which contain the cow urine, lime, salt and water on the right. Below is the tanner removing the remaining hair from the sheep skins.
The skins are then soaked in further vats containing water and pigeon excrement. The pigeon excrement contains a lot of ammonia, which softens the leather and helps it to absorb the dye. Tanners use their feet to kneed the animal skins in the vats for up to three hours, to help make the leather soft.
The skins are then left to dry before being washed and separated into piles to be dyed in different colours.
The clay vats contain different coloured dyes, all are natural. The colours are acquired from plants and trees, red is from the poppy flower, cedar trees are used for brown, mint provides the green colour, indigo gives the blue colour, henna is used for orange and saffron for the yellow colour. The skins are placed in the vats to soak, twice. The tanners use either their hands or feet to push the skins down into the vats and to move them around. The guys in the vats had either waders or some sort of leg coverage over their regular clothes to protect them from the dye. Apparently the job of a tanner is well paid and sort after.
The final step involves hanging the leathers on washing lines in rooms, walls or on the roof. They are then sold to merchants who turn them into shoes (babouche), bags, jackets and ottomans.
While I had read tripadvisor reviews and blogs that had said they received constant hassle to visit a tannery, we were only approached once. There was no real pressure to purchase, but we did wander the store briefly. As we left the leather shop that we had visited to see the tannery, my husband offered the guy some money for showing us the terrace and explaining the process, but he politely refused. So we had a good experience, despite the smell.
More information on the tannery can be found by following the link Chouara Tannery.