12 Aug could have been an average day at college, but our “not so average” trip to the leather tannery relived us from a monotonous day. We started at about 6:30am with the usual hustle bustle of that one person who always turns up late. We were heading to a small place called Vaniyambadi in Tamil Nadu, India.
The place is about 140 kms from Bangalore, which in a slow college bus took 3 hours to reach. It was an overcast day making it the perfect travel day for me. I was surprised to my lack of knowledge of geography, that Tamil nadu was so near Bangalore. Even though I had heard accounts of people going to Tamil nadu for buying crackers for Diwali. On reaching Tamil Nadu the first thing which I noticed was, the change of the language script and then I started stereotyping and started spotting men in lungis. All of us lazy bums were half asleep when we stopped at our first stop at Shoolagiri around 55 kms from Bangalore. Here we waited for some time before the driver got instructions to go ahead. And this is what we did meanwhile. Jumped on and off trucks….
We reached Vaniyambadi, which is a small village cum town which has more than 120 factories tanning and processing leather.
The smell from the tannery contradictory to popular perception is not overwhelmingly strong. And even though there were parts of the factory where standing did become a little uneasy it did not deter us from going there. The factory was well lit, as it had a huge open courtyard, from where all the sunlight poured in. In the other parts of the factory the tin sheet on the walls had bent down just before reaching the roof. This over time had evolved in a new way for natural light to seep in. The irony in the factory was that the floor of the tannery was so full of chemicals and water that I feared that my leather shoes would go for a toss!
The animal hides come from slaughterhouses, from in and around the area. The hides which came still had fur on them.
After the hides are soaked and dried they are taken for liming. Liming is done with a bluish green substance locally known as sodium flax. This helps in removing all the hair from the hides. This task is done by ladies from all over the village. Tanneries all over Vaniyambadi such as the one we visited (Almighty International) provide employment to villagers who are considered low caste by generations of Indian hierarchical segregation. The fur which is removed from these hides is then sent to Kashmir to be woven into shawls.
The hides are now de-limed where they are kept in huge baths and have to be stirred once every hour. After they have been de-limed huge rollers squeeze out all the water from the hides.These rollers to this day are foot peddled.
Now they are ready to be treated and coloured. The process of treating and colouring is known by only one man in the whole factory and it is only he who performs it. Rollers such as these can tan upto 250 hides atone time.
After rolling, soaking, drying and dyeing the hides change from wet blue (where the colour comes from the chrome based chemicals) or Wet white (Colour from Aldehyde based chemicals) to die crust leather (which is dyed to the required colour). The major treatment is now done, after this the leather is drip dried and then flattened so that all hides have uniform thickness. Alternatively thick leather can be split after it is dried.
For different finishes, the leather is treated differently. For suede the flesh side of the leather is sanded, while for Nubuck the grain side is sanded using abrasive wheels. Interestingly the sanded leather powder which comes out from this process is used to light the fire for brick kilns.
For Nappa finish the leather piece is polished on a buffing wheel, to give it a shine. A single hide of this finish goat leather with a Nappa finish costs Rs 4000.
And this way a piece of animal hide turns into leather. So next time you wear leather as shoes, jackets, wallet or just your bag, remember that, that piece of leather you own had maybe been feasted upon some plate in India!