Leather shopping in Fez

Leather shopping in Fez.

Where should we go to buy leather goods we asked our guide Moh? Wait until we reach Fez he answered and we were pleased we did!

Fez is known as the artisanal capital of Morocco. It is a city that remains rooted to it’s rich past, a city where culture and tradition are as important as they were in medieval times. As Lindy and I wandered through the medina of Fes El-Bali, we felt little had changed in hundreds of years. Navigating our way along the narrow cobbled laneways, overflowing with stalls selling food, craft, carpets and leather goods, we dodged donkeys transporting skins to the tanneries and the motorbikes that had little regard for pedestrians, in this car free zone. The sights, sounds and smells are all a part of the Fez experience!

Buried deep within the souk in Fez, are three ancient leather tanneries, the largest and oldest being our destination, the Chouara Tannery, built in the 11th century. Leather goods have been produced there using the same method for more than a thousand years. Chouara produces a huge amount of the leather for sale in Morocco and for export around the world. 

What appeals to visitors to the tannery are the range of leather goods in vibrant colours ranging from deep red, bright tangerine, lemon and mustards, to aquamarine and sky blue which were stacked to overflowing on the shelves and even hanging from the rafters.

The tanneries process the hides of cows, sheep, goats and camels, turning them into high quality leather products such as bags, coats, shoes, and slippers. This is all achieved manually, without modern machinery and the process has barely changed since medieval times. 

Every day, the tanners who work there place the raw hides into the deep earthenware vats and take them through a process of soaking, stripping, drying, more soaking and finally dyeing.

The hides are first soaked in a mixture of cow urine, quicklime, water and salt, for two to three days after which tanners scrape away excess hair fibres and fat in order to prepare the hides for dyeing. The hides are then soaked in another set of vats which contain a mixture of water and pigeon droppings. Pigeon droppings contains ammonia which acts as the softening agent, allowing the hides to become malleable so they can absorb the dye. The tanner then uses his bare feet to knead the hides for up to three hours to achieve the desired softness.

The mix of pigeon droppings and cow urine produces a pungent stench and the staff at the tannery offers visitors sprigs of fresh mint to carry, to help disguise the odour.

The hides are then placed in dying pits containing natural vegetable dyes, such as poppy flower for red, indigo for blue, henna for orange, cedar wood for brown, mint for green and saffron for yellow.  Once the leather is dyed, it is taken out to dry under the sun. The finished leather is then crafted into Moroccan slippers, known as babouches, as well as wallets, furniture and of course handbags.

Our mission was to select a range of handbags and backpacks from one of the best collections of leather goods in Morocco. Several hours later, after enjoying several glasses of mint tea to sustain us whilst we looked through the leather goods, we were happy with our choices. Leather bags in rainbow hues were spread across the tiled floor, crafted from supple sheep and goat skin and the sturdier camel skin and cow hide. Some with woven panel inserts of Kilim wool, others with fringing and tassels. Our range also included spectacle cases and sturdy leather ottomans in camel skin.

After walking back to our Fez Riad, tired but happy with the purchases of the day, we were glad we had the opportunity to buy our leather goods from the Chouara tannery and experience many of the traditional practises in use since medieval times.