Often called mankind’s “first fabric,” leather has been considered a fine and treasured material since the beginning of history and across nearly all cultures and peoples around the globe.
In this kick-off to our leather learning series, we go through a broad overview of what leather is, how it’s made, and why it’s important.
In Europe, leather was used as both a functional material and an artistic material, and fine art examples survive of leather being used as wall coverings, ecclesiastical objects, and decorative coverings on wooden boxes and furniture. In Asia, leather is best-known for its fine art use in shadow puppets, decorative boxes and bottle coverings, and in Africa, leather was used in decorative figures as well as the shields of the Massai. Functionally, leather has been used as everything from drinking bladders to boats to, of course, footwear. Ancient Romans judged a man’s rank by the quality of his sandals.
Why We Use Leather Today
Ancient Egyptians valued leather as highly as gold, and it’s no wonder – the beauty, strength, flexibility, and durability of leather make it unique among materials. It is easier to form than wood and it is sturdier and longer-lasting than fiber-based fabrics.
It is so durable that even today, ancient leather artifacts are still being unearthed from the ground. And when properly tanned and cared for, it is a “lifetime material” — its beauty gets even more lustrous with use and age, developing a rich and glossy patina, and can be passed down for generations.
How Leather Is Made
In brief, leather is the dermis of an animal that has been preserved for long life in a process called “tanning.”
When we think of a typical leather, what we’re expecting is mostly one kind of leather: full grain vegetable-tanned leather, usually from a domesticated farm animal: such as a cow, sheep, goat. But let’s break that down: there is a source / animal (“cow”) + a hide splitting structure (“full grain”) + a tanning process (“vegetable-tanned”). All three of those elements are just some of the many options in leather today.
In addition to other kinds of animals and other kinds of splits (top grain, “genuine”, suede, bonded), the science of tanning underwent a sea change during the Industrial Revolution, with the discovery of chemicals that could speed up the process of making leather.
During the Industrial Revolution, they also discovered many different ways for finishing the leather with different acids, dyes, paints, waxes, and coatings. Each of these different treatments affects the drape, color, and durability of the leather, making each kind of leather suitable for different products.
Nowadays, leather can be soft and delicate or tough and woody; thick or thin; candy-colored or natural grained; elastic or firm; hair-on or plasticized or even “raw” (as in, rawhide). Some of these variations are natural and some are synthetic. But all of these variations are the 4 elements of leather production: source + split + tanning + finishing = leather.
Why It’s Important
What you should know when buying leather
Whether you’re buying leather for a craft project or shopping for an already-crafted leather good, it’s important to know the different types of leathers so you can be sure you’re buying the right quality. But when learning about different kinds of leather, the sheer number of terms, signifiers and adjectives used to describe the leather itself can be bewildering.
In this learning series, we’ll show how they all follow the process of turning a raw perishable product into a shelf-stable material, so you can better understand the strengths and weaknesses of the resulting material:
- The type of animal: cow, goat, sheep, etc.
- The structure (split) of the hide: full-grain, top-grain, etc.
- The tanning process: vegetable-tanned, chrome-tanned, etc.
- The finishing process: dyes, paints, waxes, coatings, etc.
Then, when looking at the quality of finished leather goods, there are a few more craftsmanship details to consider:
- Suitability of the leather type for the product’s intended use
- Surface treatment
- Edge coloring and shaping
- Stitching and thread
We’ll go through all these steps – including how to recognize them in the store or in photographs – in the next posts.
We’re writing a leather learning series, and this is the first of ten posts. In the series, we go through the different kinds of leather and the different ways it is tanned and finished, then talk about how leather as a raw material is turned into products, how to tell good leather products in the store, how those products should be maintained, and ethical leather choices.
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