16th Century Leather Dyeing

The range of colours available to the period craftsmen were much more limited than those available today and the dyes were all derived from plants. Modern leather dyes tend to be very opaque, producing very solid colours that can cover up many imperfections in the leather - they are also very resistant to fading. Vegetable dyes are much softer in tone and are more translucent allowing the character of the leather to show through. The colour range is much more limited and they change over time when exposed to sunlight.
Dye stuffs and mordants
The dye being painted onto a goat skin
All the dyes I use are based on the recipes found in the 1548 Italian dyers manual "Plictho de Lare de Tentori ...." compiled by Gioanventura Rossetti. Firstly the dye stuffs are boiled in water to extract the dye and then mordants are added to help fix the dye to the leather. Once the dye has been prepared it is painted onto the skins using a large brush. The skins are then hung up to dry. If a deeper colour is needed then this process is repeated.
After dying the skins are usually very dry and stiff so they need to be dressed and softened before they can be used. First the skins are oiled with olive oil to improve the colour and then they are dressed with a mixture of bees wax, animal fat oil, lanoline and turpentine. This lubricates the fibres of the leather and makes the leather more supple and tear resistant.
A goat skin being oiled
Softening the leather by pulling it over a leatherworkers stake

After dressing the skins are softened using a stake. This is done by pulling the leather over a blunt knife in all directions a number of times. This loosens the fibre bundles in the skin and allows them to move more freely against each other making the leather nice and soft. It also has the effect of pulling the dressing deeper into the fibres.

Once softened the skins are given another dressing on the grain side and then left to rest for a few weeks.

Finished skins hung up in the workshop

Range of colours

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Site last updated 20th February 2017