Rediscovering the tanneries of Fez

I decided to do a bit of spring cleaning the other day and to my surprise I uncovered lots of old photographs, including the ones I took while visiting Morocco in 2004!

While in Fez’s old Medina (a UNESCO World Heritage site), we visited the leather souq, where we came across an amazing sight. Nestled in the middle of buildings within this walled city are three ancient tanneries which still use medieval industrial dyeing methods.

Chouara Tannery, Fez

The Chouara Tannery has been unchanged since the 11th century. The stone pots are filled with different coloured natural dyes.
The ancient tannery has been unchanged since the 11th century. The stone pots are filled with different coloured natural dyes. The skins are left in the dye vats for approximately one week so they fully absorb the colour.

The tannery process begins by soaking the raw animal skins (sheep, goat, cow, and camel) for two to three days in large vats that contain cow urine, quicklime, water and salt. This combination breaks-down tough proteins and loosens excess fat, flesh, and hair from the skins. Once cleaned, the skins are laid on the surrounding rooftops to dry. Once dry the skins are washed and soaked in a blend of water and pigeon poop (this contains ammonia which behaves as a softening agent), making the skins supple and soft. The tanners then use their bare feet to knead the skins for up to three hours to achieve the desired softness. Once this is accomplished the skins are ready to dye in vats like the ones above.

The stone dye vats you see in my photos are filled with natural dyes: poppy flower (red), henna (orange), saffron (yellow), and cedar wood (brown). Blue and green can also be achieved through the use of indigo and mint respectively. The dyeing process also uses pomegranate powder which is rubbed on the skins to turn them yellow, while olive oil is used to make them shiny.

 

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