A Tannery In Fes

A reader emailed me that my purses get to see more of the world than some people she knows, and the Balenciaga Day bag you see above is just starting to become one of the better workhorses I have for the road. It folds flat in my carry-on bag, is super light, and holds tons of stuff. I don’t have to baby it in bad weather, and as distressed as the leather looks, I can still feel a bit rocker chic when I carry it around town.

Since we are talking about handbags, let’s visit a tannery in Fes,

where back-breaking hard work takes place almost every day so that we can have the bags, shoes, rugs, and other leather goods that Fes is so famous for.

When tourists walk around the Medina, they are approached by older children and young men offering to take them on a tour of a tannery. You can negotiate the price for their services beforehand and at the end of the tour be firm in your decision to let them take you to a carpet or souvenir shop or not. These unofficial guides can be very persistent, but your polite albeit firm answer will save everyone time and frustration.

In my case the young guide is an enthusiastic student who speaks perfect French and English in addition to Arabic, Berber, Spanish and some German. I feel outmatched…

and overdressed as one tiny misstep and I could fall into any of the vats, Gucci jacket and all…but I like living precariously :-D!

Some of the sheep are sheared using this blade and their wool is used for blankets, carpets and other textiles:

Hides of less fortunate animals such as sheep, goats, and camels are washed several times then stacked,

after which a blue coating is applied to the backing of the hides:

After the washing, the hides are lined up on rooftops,


and hills to dry under the bright African sun:

These vats are filled with dyes and pigeon droppings whose ammonia works to soften the skins! The odor is definitely strong here and I can imagine it to be much less tolerable on a warm summer day.

Today saffron is the color of choice at this tannery:

At other times you can see a few different colors such as the vivid red on the hides seen dotting another hillside behind us as used by another tannery:

Dyes can be mixed by using nature’s bounty like pomegranates, indigo, cinnamon, and acacia. If only the tannery had been feeling multicolor on the day I was there–now that would have been a lucky photo session!

From the rooftop I am able to get these shots of the tannery:

Once the hides are ready for use, the workers gather in small tin-roofed rooms to work on crafts like camel-hide musical instruments that make popular souvenirs:

Working conditions are definitely tough by western standards…

and I know I’m very, very lucky to be a visitor instead of a worker here…this could easily have been my lot in life had the stars been aligned just a bit differently…


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