A brief history of Leather
Leather has been in constant use for well over 3000 years. The earliest archaeological evidence dates from around 1300 BC. Its flexibility and resistance to damage has led to an incredible variety of practical applications, from the crafting of ancient armour to its use as a mainstay of contemporary fashion, where it is ideally suited to the production of jackets, shoes, bags, belts, wallets, and many other accessories.
Types of leather
Traditionally crafted from animal skins, the most popular source is cattle hide, but the use of horsehide and lambskin is common in many countries, alongside more exotic options such as alligator, snakeskin, and even kangaroo, which is especially durable and can be used for heavy-duty applications such as bullwhips, protective motorcycle gear and sporting footwear.
Grades of leather
Leather can be produced in a variety of grades. In top-grain leather, the outermost layer of the hide (known as its ‘grain’) is used to ensure optimal strength and resilience. Full-grain fabrics are generally considered to be material of the very highest quality, and they are much sought after by manufacturers for the creation of premium products such as luxury footwear and upholstery. Top-grain fabrics can also be sanded down or buffed to create Nubuck, which has a smooth, velvety feel, and is often used in the fashion industry for the creation of lush, supple jackets.
The next layer of hide, beneath the grain, is known as ‘corium’, and this can be separated from the top-grain to create a ‘split’. If the hide is thick enough, the resulting ‘drop split’ can be further divided, and can be used to create suede. Alternatively, it can be coated in a layer of vinyl or polyurethane to create a bi-cast material, which is stiffer than top-grain fabric. Patent leather features a similar plastic coating, giving it a highly glossy sheen which can be used very effectively by manufacturers of fashionable boots and shoes, as well as wallets, bags and other accessories.
How leather is processed
Once harvested, the skins are stripped of hair, degreased and cured with salt, before being submerged in water for up to two days to desalinate and moisturise the hide. The next and most vital stage is tanning, which helps to fortify and preserve the hide. Without this stage of the process, the untreated skins would rapidly decompose and become unsuitable for most purposes. One major criticism of the industry hinges on the ecological impact of the tanning process. In ancient times, the process used purely natural ingredients, but since the industrial revolution the use of highly abrasive chemicals such as Chromium Sulphate has become standard throughout the industry.
In recent decades, a number of ethical alternatives have been developed in response to a growing demand from vegans, animal rights activists, and consumers who are concerned about the environmental impact of animal products. One option is the use of synthetic materials such as polyurethane as a coating which can be applied to other fabrics to create a similar appearance. Brands like Good Guys and Stella McCartney use vegan leather.
One alternative is the use of ‘Eco Leather’, a relatively recent development within the fashion industry. The ‘Eco’ variant still uses genuine animal hides, but the manufacturing process sidesteps the more environmentally damaging impact of mainstream tanning. Rather than using abrasive chemicals, this far more ethical approach utilises natural, plant-based products such as tannin, extracted from the bark and leaves of trees, to create the same preservative effect.
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