In Alexis Kappas’ tannery you can experience an ancient craft up close.
Early in the morning the men are having their first coffee in the kafenia, the traditional cafés, on the platia in Palia Volos, the old part of the seaport Volos. Alexis Kappas’ tannery is situated on the edge of town, close to the arterial roads to Athens and Thessaloniki. Passing a big entrance door, we enter the elongated single-storey brick building. Large washing drums, water basins and long stone channels equip the workshop. A strong, pungent smell greets us. Daylight enters only sparsely through the dusty louvered windows. The tread down ground resembles the red brown leather hides. Tanning is a hard profession that struggles for trainees. Standing up for hours, carrying heavy hides and the constant smell aren’t offering a very attractive working atmosphere. Alexis Kappas, a tall well-built man with blue eyes runs the tannery in the second generation.
In a sombre side room there is a stock of new goat-, sheep- and cowhides. “Alati, derma, alati, derma – salt, hide, salt, hide”, Alexis explains us and points to the pile of layered hides. This way the new skins are conserved for a couple of days, before they are processed. They are delivered directly from the slaughterhouse; goat, sheep, cow, ox and horse. The unbearable smell of rotten flesh and rancid fat makes it difficult to stay in the storage room.
Many work steps for one piece of leather
Tanning is one of the oldest crafts of human culture. Already in the Stone Age humankind tried to preserve hides and make them supple at the same time. While Alexis packs a shipment he explains the individual work steps of leather production. The rawhides are washed in big wooden drums before the animal hair is removed. Afterwards they are treated with calcium oxide and sulphites in a basin in order to loosen the skin. As a result the hair and fatty subcutis can be mechanically removed, leaving only the dermis. The following tanning process is structured in three phases that enable the tanning agents to turn the hide into leather by fixing and linking proteins. Before the drying process the leather hides are washed one last time in order to remove the tanning agents.
“We are off for Tsípouro!“
Kappas’ long-time employee, a wiry haggard person, pulls out the very heavy soggy freshly tanned and washed hides from the basins and puts them on a wheelbarrow. On a workbench he cuts them on the two upper ends, fixes them with strings on a stick and hangs them up for drying on the wooden construction underneath the roof. It is a laborious and tedious process to turn a hide into a soft piece of leather. In the meantime, the master tanner works by the folding machine. Over here the dry leather’s thickness is standardised. One cow yields around 30 kilos of leather and we produce about 500 kilos per week”, Alexis explains and turns off the machine. “We are off for Tsípouro!” After a quick good-bye he gets on his Yamaha and vanishes through the entrance door.