Organic Origins - The beginning of our journey

An early 19th century lithograph by Belin et Belmont depicting a village tannery and the uses of its leather.

Before the advent of chromium tanning in the 19th century, all leather would have been considered organic by today’s standards.  An art form perfected over millennia, tanning was common practice from rural villages to city centers worldwide.  Knowledge passed along with generations had given us the tools and the means to use every part of a hunted or domesticated animal, including its skin.  Virtually every settlement, village, or metropolis had at least one tannery to serve its citizens.

A mid-18th century lithograph depicting an industrial tannery in Philadelphia.  Image courtesy Library Company of Philadelphia

Following the industrial revolution, our consumption habits changed as cheap and plentiful products made buying new things easy and pleasurable.  Today, we have little understanding of the origins of the items we buy, and our consumeristic culture has driven demand for products that last little longer than it takes to buy a replacement.  While our grandparents and theirs before them made carefully crafted heirlooms to cherish and pass down, we are now caught in a cycle of purchase to landfill.

This was the realization that the founder of Organic Leather, Rowan Gabrielle, had in 2006 when she decided to launch a line of leather goods.  A frontrunner in the “eco-fashion” movement from her work producing awareness events and ethical fashion shows, she needed leather that was tanned naturally without chemicals, and traceable back to the farm.  Her search led down a rabbit hole of information, but also to a lack of production on the scale that she needed.  The knowledge of the past had been relegated to a dwindling number of vegetable tanneries, as well as a community of do-it-yourself hunters & homesteaders delving into ancient brain-tanning and smoking methods (yes, that kind of brain).

The brain tanners were generally the only ones with any knowledge of the skins’ origins as they had hunted, or bought hides from hunters.  However, they mostly tanned skin by skin, and few were in the business of selling.  Those that were, only sold small quantities of tanned hides from hunted wild game.  The vegetable tanneries, though still using traditional tree bark derived methods scaled up for modern production volume, purchased hides from brokers with no records of the individual animals’ origins.  Neither option being enough to build an ethical brand, Rowan saw the need to build a larger scale supply chain for designers and consumers like herself.

She began reaching out to contacts she had gathered from her years advocating ethical consumption, and seeking out tanners who were willing to work with her.  It was through these efforts she came across a historic tannery in Oregon named Muir & McDonald, who traditionally tanned on a small scale using native Douglas Fir bark.  However, after a short time of working with them to develop a fully organic leather, Muir & McDonald folded due to the pressure of competition from cheaper, faster chrome tanneries.

Undeterred, Rowan continued to seek a manufacturing partner and soon began to work with the J&FJ Baker Tannery in her native UK.  Having stood the test of time for over 500 years of tanning,  Baker’s continued to produce small quantities of a heavy bridle leather using oak bark.  The resulting leather was beautiful, durable, and completely natural in the tanning process.  The only final step was to ensure the hides came from organic origins.   The last piece of the puzzle was put into place when hides sourced exclusively from beyond organic farms in the English Countryside were purchased and tanned at Baker’s, producing the world’s first fully traceable organic leather.

A roll of organic heavy bridle leather tanned traditionally by J&FJ Baker in Coylton, UK.

Rowan making organic leather jewelry in her studio. 

As Rowan began making and selling leather jewelry and small goods, people from all over the world began to enquire about getting their hands on the unique leather.  Since then, Rowan has sold limited wholesale quantities of the Baker's tanned hides to designers & craftspeople. However, due to long lead times and labor intensive oak bark tanning, this option was cost prohibitive for many.  As demand increased, especially for affordable leathers in a wider range of weights, it became clear it was time to expand the selection.  It was around this time that Adan Maldonado, then studying Design Entrepreneurship at the Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC, contacted Rowan and a the beginning of a partnership was formed.  

Next up: Organic Leather Origins Part 2