Leaning over the balcony rail with my camera, I watched the workers in the courtyard below. Some of them were thigh-deep in vats of brightly-coloured liquid. One heaved skins one by one, wet and heavy, into a deep pool. Another looked up at me as he took a breather in the hot sun, his arms and legs stained dark with dye. None of them seemed bothered by the acid stink that reached me even three floors above. I pressed the sprig of mint to my nose, breathed in, and took another photo.
This is Chouara Tannery (sometimes spelled Chouwara or Chaouwara), the largest, most popular, and most astonishingly photogenic of the three leather tanneries in Fes (aka. Fez). It’s a popular place to visit for two main reasons: not only is it one of the most fascinating and eye-catching sights in Fes, but it’s also the best place in the whole of Morocco to buy Moroccan leather bags, Moroccan leather slippers, and every other type of leather goods you can think of, including jackets, poufs, footrests, skirts, shoes and belts.
I visited Chouara Tannery during a trip to Fes as part of a two-week tour of Morocco that also took in such delights as glamping in the Sahara Desert. The trip was full of highlights, but the visit to the tannery in Fes is something I’ll always remember.
The leather here made here is beautiful: buttery soft and top quality. Little wonder that Moroccan leather is highly prized and shipped all over the world.
So you’re thinking of visiting Fes, or looking for the best place to buy world-class leather in Morocco, this post is definitely for you.
How They Make Leather At Chouara Tannery
Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, Fes medina was founded in the 9th century and the tanneries inside the medina have been there since the very beginning. What’s more, the techniques they use today to cure and dye the leather are the same techniques they’ve been using for over 1000 years.
The stone pits you can see in the photos are filled with different chemicals. The white pits at the back are where they cure the leather, and the brown pits at the front are filled with different coloured dyes.
Moroccan leather can be made from the skins of camels, cows, sheep or goats. The hides are first cleaned and softened using a pretty sickening-sounding mixture of quicklime, salt, water, and – yes – cow urine and pigeon shit. Apparently the ammonia in the animal effluent helps soften the skins and prepare them to absorb the dye. This pungent concoction, along with the presences of tonnes of dead animal skins, certainly explains the smell, and I have the utmost respect for anyone who can spend all day up to his waist in the stuff!
After curing and softening comes colouring. Only natural dyes are used, including indigo for blue, saffron for yellow, poppy flower for red and henna for orange. The dyes are poured into the stone pits and then workers get in with the dyes and massage the skins with their feet to make sure the colour is spread evenly.
I guess this explains why the workers in the white pits wear rubber waders to get in, while the workers in the dye pits are bare-legged. Even so, it’s definitely not a job I fancy having a go at.
The only colour they don’t do in the pits is yellow. Yellow dye is made from saffron, which is too expensive to waste, so the skins are carefully dyed by hand and then left out in the sun to dry.
The finished leather pieces are then sold to the designers and clothing makers, many of whom work in the buildings surrounding the tannery and are often related to the tanners in the pits below. The entire Moroccan leather production process involves no machinery, only manual labour, using skills and techniques virtually identical to those employed in medieval times
How To Visit The Leather Tannery in Fes
Chouara Tannery is situated right in the heart of Fes Medina. As you can see in the photos, the tannery courtyard is surrounded on all four sides by buildings, most of which contain leather shops. This means that if you want to see the tannery in action, you’ll have to pass through one of the many shops to do so. Most of the shops have terraces offering excellent views out of the courtyard, though of course some are better than others, and if you want to get more than one angle you may have to visit several shops. According to the Lonely Planet, the best views are from door no. 10 on Derb Chaouwara, though many of the others have similarly good views.
To find the leather tanneries, head for Fes el Bali, the oldest medina quarter, near the Saffarin Madrasa. The easiest way is to follow a combination of your guidebook map, signs on the walls, and the helpful advice of locals. Don’t be tricked into paying for a guide to take you there, however, as anything you buy will end up being more expensive to cover the cost of his commission.
There is no charge to walk in and look around, though if you come to look at the tannery and don’t buy anything you’ll be expected to pay a tip before you leave. You won’t need to leave much – a few dirhams (maybe 50p or so) will be plenty, and it’s definitely worth it for the view!
As you pass through the store salesmen will obviously try to attract your attention to the huge range of Moroccan leather bags, jackets and shoes on display, but I didn’t find them to be that pushy – a simple ‘no thank you’ as I passed through was enough.
How Bad Is The Smell At the Fes Tannery?
Reviews of Chouara Tannery on TripAdvisor suggest the smell is so disgusting as to make the place almost intolerable, but I wouldn’t say it was that bad. As you go in, you’ll be handed a sprig of mint to mask the stink, but I needed both hands free for my camera so I ended up discarding it and I was fine. It’s a strong, pungent, sour smell, exactly as you might expect given where you are, but if you breathe through your mouth you’ll soon get used to it.
(As I mentioned, while the gift of mint is technically free, you will be expected to pay for it in the form of a small tip after your visit to the Fes tanneries if you don’t end up buying anything.)
How to buy Moroccan Leather At Fes Tannery
Anything and everything that can be made from leather is sold here: purses, handbags, belts, Moroccan slippers, shoes, jackets, skirts, trousers, poufs, footstools, hats and more. If there’s something you want and they don’t have it in your style or colour, they can make adjustments to something similar or even whip up a new one from scratch in 24 hours.
Buy from here and if you haggle well you’ll get the best quality Moroccan leather goods at a fraction of the price you’d pay in London or New York.
Here’s how to get the best price for your Moroccan leather bag, jacket, slippers, or whatever else takes your fancy.
1/ Do your research before you go. Decide what you want, either by looking online or, if you have time, by browsing in the souks. If you do the latter, you can also get an idea of what the traders in the souks are charging, which will help you with negotiations. Whatever their starting price is, you should expect to pay no more than about half of that amount, (a) because they will always start high and (b) because when you buy direct from Chouara tannery you’ll be cutting out the middle man.
2/ Decide how much you want to pay. How much is the item worth to you? For example, I wanted a leather jacket but I hadn’t been able to find one I liked in London. I knew that a good quality leather jacket would likely cost me 200-300 back home, and that if I saw my perfect one – a bright blue bomber jacket – in London, I’d pay that much for it or maybe even more. So if I could find my dream leather jacket and pay less than £200 for it, I’d be more than happy.
3/ Browse in the Moroccan leather store of your choice, find your item, but don’t appear too keen. You need to give the impression that you can take it or leave it; you’re not that desperate, and if the price is not good, you won’t buy it.
4/ Ask how much. This is where the fun starts. The basic game with haggling is that the salesman will ask for way more than he’s willing to accept, and you must offer much less than you’re willing to pay, and you meet in the middle. With my leather jacket, for example, the salesman started the bidding at 4500 dirhams (about £360). I went in embarrassingly low, at 1000 (£80) and we worked our way up from there. When he came down to 2000 (£160) he refused to go lower, but then I told him I didn’t want to pay more than £150, and he agreed. 1800 dirhams. Sold.
5/ If possible, buy in bulk or with your friends. Buying several items or as group will get you better discounts. One reason why I got such a good price was that two other members of my group were also buying jackets at the same time so we were able to get even more of a bargain AND look stylish for our last night out in Marrakech.
Of course, if you’re not in the market for anything made of leather, Chouara tannery in Fes is still very much worth a visit just for the experience. Just go with a friendly smile, a firm tone, and a few small coins to hand over as an entry fee. It’s totally worth it.
Have you been? How did your experience compare with mine? Did you buy anything? I’d love to read your comments below!
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