Lo Stivale tannery in Santa Croce sull’Arno, in the Tuscan Leather District (Italy), has always held a protagonist role within its industry’s national history. To know more about it we’ve interviewed Emilio Martelli, 82 years old, 71 of which spent between tanning tanks and drums.

“I joined the tannery when I was only 11 years old” – he says. “That’s how it used to be those days; people started working when they were very young. I immediately learned the art of vegetable tanning with tannin. By the time I was 14, I had already acquired a fair amount of experience and I moved to another company that used a different tanning method from the one I was used to, namely chrome tanning.”

“Unfortunately, I didn’t last long: I found out I was allergic to chromium and I always felt an itchy skin, especially on my hands. And when it’s like that, you have to stop. With vegetable tanning and tannins, on the contrary, I never had any problems. I can certainly say that I am a living proof that vegetable tanning is really suitable for even the most sensitive skin!”

In the 1950s, working in a tannery was a very tough job: “You went up and down the stairs carrying hides on your shoulders, there were no elevators,” Martelli says. “Initially, only the tanks were used; the drums came later. This was a substantial change: it made the tanning process faster and more efficient. In fact, the tanning of hides in drums lasts about 12 hours; for leather soles, on the other hand, it is still necessary to use tanks and wait for at least 3 months.”

“In the past there were very ancient practices, such as the ‘rammorto’: after the liming, the phase in which the hair and the epidermis are chemically removed by treating the leather, the wet hides were laid in holes dug directly into the ground and sprinkled with chestnut wood chips. The natural humidity of the soil favored the passage of tannin from the wood chips to the leather, like salting ham! This was done to get the hides ready for the next stages of tanning.”

Many other things have changed since those times. For example, as Martelli recounts: “Today hides are shaved using machines; in the past it was the tools and the manual skill of the tanner which made it possible to bring the hides to a certain thickness.” In addition, up until the 1930s, an interesting use was made of the scraps deriving from fleshing: “We cleaned the flesh side of the hide removing the fat and fleshy residue left after skinning, before moving on to the actual tanning process. These scraps were then shredded and used as fertilizer for olive trees.”

“At that time, Sumac tannin was widely used, imparting to the leathers a typical light color. Nowadays quebracho, chestnut and mimosa are the most used tannins,” Martelli explains. “The art of tanning consists above all in knowing the properties of tannins and how to dose them, to obtain leathers with different degrees of softness and resistance.”
A lot has changed also in the stage which follows the tanning process. “In our tannery we make a special fatliquor, with tallow and fish oil. Many years ago we even used whale oil, which is now banned; we have replaced it with special oils derived from fish. After the press, the fatliquor is mixed directly into the drum and the rotating movement helps the substances to penetrate into the fibers.”
Although many of these processes have been outperformed by modern technologies, Lo Stivale Tannery has preserved the spirit of tradition. “We use only natural raw materials. At the end of its life cycle, our leather can safely return to the earth as fertilizer.”

“We are a small company: 9 employees and 4 partners. But that’s okay: our effort still combines modernity and tradition. If I think of when it all started in 1951, in the middle of the post-war period, we only had a 60-70 square meter shed and a drum made out of a wine barrel! Many tanneries started like this in those years. We are proud of the path that has brought us this far.”
“Today, it is mainly the large companies that expand their business, but to become one we must accept standardization, and we do not want to defy our belief. The call for small companies that follow our same philosophy is urgent, we must join forces and present a united front to maintain that

Info: https://www.lostivale.it/