Leather is a material created through the tanning of hides and skins of animals, primarily cattlehide. The tanning process converts the putrescible skin into a durable, long-lasting and versatile natural material for various uses. Together with wood, leather formed the basis of much ancient technology. The leather industry and the fur industry are distinct industries that are differentiated by the importance of their raw materials. In the leather industry the raw materials are by-products of the meat industry, with the meat having higher value than the skin. The fur industry uses raw materials that are higher in value than the meat and hence the meat is classified as a by-product. Taxidermy also makes use of the skin of animals, but generally the head and part of the back are used. Hides and skins are also used in the manufacture of glue and gelatin.
Forms of leather
There are a number of processes whereby the skin of an animal can be formed into a supple, strong material commonly called leather.
• Vegetable-tanned leather is tanned using tannin and other ingredients found in vegetable matter, tree bark, and other such sources. It is supple and brown in color, with the exact shade depending on the mix of chemicals and the color of the skin. It is the only form of leather suitable for use in leather carving or stamping. Vegetable-tanned leather is not stable in water; it tends to discolor, and if left to soak and then dry it will shrink and become less supple and harder. In hot water, it will shrink drastically and partly gelatinize, becoming rigid and eventually brittle. Boiled leather is an example of this where the leather has been hardened by being immersed in hot water, or in boiled wax or similar substances. Historically, it was occasionally used as armor after hardening, and it has also been used for book binding.
• Chrome-tanned leather, invented in 1858, is tanned using chromium sulfate and other salts of chromium. It is more supple and pliable than vegetable-tanned leather, and does not discolor or lose shape as drastically in water as vegetable-tanned. It is also known as wet-blue for its color derived from the chromium. More esoteric colors are possible using chrome tanning.
• Aldehyde-tanned leather is tanned using glutaraldehyde or oxazolidine compounds. This is the leather that most tanners refer to as wet-white leather due to its pale cream or white color. It is the main type of "chrome-free" leather, often seen in shoes for infants, and automobiles. Formaldehyde tanning (being phased out due to its danger to workers and the sensitivity of many people to formaldehyde) is another method of aldehyde tanning. Brain-tanned leathers fall into this category and are exceptionally water absorbent. Brain tanned leathers are made by a labor-intensive process which uses emulsified oils, often those of animal brains. They are known for their exceptional softness and their ability to be washed. Chamois leather also falls into the category of aldehyde tanning and like brain tanning produces a highly water absorbent leather. Chamois leather is made by using oils (traditionally cod oil) that oxidize easily to produce the aldehydes that tan the leather to make the fabric the color it is.
• Synthetic-tanned leather is tanned using aromatic polymers such as the Novolac or Neradol types. This leather is white in color and was invented when vegetable tannins were in short supply during the Second World War. Melamine and other amino-functional resins fall into this category as well and they provide the filling that modern leathers often require. Urea-formaldehyde resins were also used in this tanning method until dissatisfaction about the formation of free formaldehyde was realized.
• Alum-tanned leather is tanned using aluminium salts mixed with a variety of binders and protein sources, such as flour and egg yolk. Purists argue that alum-tanned leather is technically "tawed" and not tanned, as the resulting material will rot in water. Very light shades of leather are possible using this process, but the resulting material is not as supple as vegetable-tanned leather.
• Rawhide is made by scraping the skin thin, soaking it in lime, and then stretching it while it dries. Like alum-tanning, rawhide is not technically "leather", but is usually lumped in with the other forms. Rawhide is stiffer and more brittle than other forms of leather, and is primarily found in uses such as drum heads where it does not need to flex significantly; it is also cut up into cords for use in lacing or stitching, or for making many varieties of dog chews.
Leather—usually vegetable-tanned leather—can be oiled to improve its water resistance. This supplements the natural oils remaining in the leather itself, which can be washed out through repeated exposure to water. Frequent oiling of leather, with mink oil, neatsfoot oil or a similar material, keeps it supple and improves its lifespan dramatically.
Leather with the hair still attached is called hair-on.
In general, leather is sold in three forms:
• Full-grain leather or top-grain refers to the upper section of a hide that previously contained the epidermis and hair, but were removed from the hide/skin. Full-grain refers to hides that have not been sanded, buffed or snuffed (otherwise known as corrected) in order to remove imperfections (or natural marks) on the surface of the hide, although is never perfect. The grain remains in its natural state which will allow the best fiber strength, resulting in greater durability. The natural grain also has natural breathability, resulting in greater comfort for clothing. Rather than wearing out, it will develop a natural patina and change in its appearance over time with some cracking and spliting. The finest leather furniture and footwear are made from full-grain leather. For these reasons only the best raw hide are used in order to create full-grain or top-grain leather. Full grain leathers can mainly be bought as two finish types: aniline and semi-aniline.
• Corrected-grain leather is any top-grain leather that has had its surfaces sanded, buffed or snuffed in order to remove any imperfection on the surface due to insect bites, healed scars or brands. Top-grain leather is often wrongly referred to as corrected-grain. Although corrected-grain leather is made from top-grain, as soon as the surface is corrected in any way, the leather is no longer referred to as top-grain leather. The hides used to create corrected leather are hides of inferior quality that do not meet the high standards for use in creating aniline or semi-aniline leather. The imperfections are corrected and an artificial grain applied. Most corrected-grain leather is used to make pigmented leather as the solid pigment helps hide the corrections or imperfections. Corrected grain leathers can mainly be bought as two finish types: semi-aniline and pigmented.
• Split leather is leather created from the fibrous part of the hide left once the top-grain of the rawhide has been separated from the hide. During the splitting operation, the grain and drop split are separated. The drop split can be further split (thickness allowing) into a middle split and a flesh split. In very thick hides, the middle split can be separated into multiple layers until the thickness prevents further splitting. Split leather then has an artificial layer applied to the surface of the split and is embossed with a leather grain (Bycast leather). Splits are also used to create suede. The strongest suedes are usually made from grain splits (that have the grain completely removed) or from the flesh split that has been shaved to the correct thickness. Suede is "fuzzy" on both sides. Manufacturers use a variety of techniques to make suede from full-grain. For example, in one operation, leather finish is applied to one side of the suede, which is then pressed through rollers; these flatten and even out one side of the material, giving it the smooth appearance of full-grain. Latigo is one of the trade names for this product. A reversed suede is a grained leather that has been designed into the leather article with the grain facing away from the visible surface. It is not a true form of suede.
The International Union of Leather Technologists and Chemist Societies has a glossary of leather terms that can be found at IULTCS.
Other less-common leathers include:
• Buckskin or brained leather is a tanning process that uses animal brains or other fatty materials to alter the leather. The resulting supple, suede-like hide is usually smoked heavily to prevent it from rotting.
• Patent leather is leather that has been given a high-gloss finish. The original process was developed in Newark, New Jersey, by inventor Seth Boyden in 1818. Patent leather usually has a plastic coating.
• Shagreen is also known as stingray skin/leather. Applications used in furniture production date as far back as the art deco period. The word "shagreen" originates from France and is commonly confused with a shark skin and stingray skin combination.
• Vachetta leather is used in the trimmings of luggage and handbags, popularized by Louis Vuitton. The leather is left untreated and is therefore susceptible to water and stains. Sunlight will cause the natural leather to darken in shade, called a patina.
• Slink is leather made from the skin of unborn calves. It is particularly soft, and is valued for use in making gloves.
• Deerskin is one of the toughest leathers, partially due to adaptations to their thorny and thicket filled habitats. Deerskin has been prized in many societies including indigenous Americans. Most modern deer skin is no longer procured from the wild, with deer farms breeding the animals specifically for the purpose of their skins. Large quantities are still tanned from wild deer hides in historic tanning towns such as Gloversville and Johnstown in upstate New York. Deerskin is used in jackets and overcoats, professional sporting equipment for martial arts such as kendo and bogu, as well as high-quality personal accessories like handbags and wallets. It commands a high price due to its relative rarity and proven durability.
• Nubuck is top-grain cattle hide leather that has been sanded or buffed on the grain side, or outside, to give a slight nap of short protein fibers, producing a velvet-like surface.
There are two other descriptions of leather commonly used in specialty products, such as briefcases, wallets, and luggage.
• Belting leather is a full-grain leather that was originally used in driving pulley belts and other machinery. It is often found on the surface of briefcases, portfolios, and wallets, and can be identified by its thick, firm feel and smooth finish. Belting leather is the only kind of leather used in luxury products that can retain its shape without the need for a separate frame; it is generally a heavy-weight of full-grain, vegetable-tanned leather.
• Nappa leather, or Napa leather, is chrome-tanned and is extremely soft and supple and is commonly found in higher quality wallets, toiletry kits, and other personal leather goods.
The following are not 'true' leathers, but contain leather material. Depending on jurisdiction, they may still be labeled as "Genuine Leather."
• Bonded leather , or "reconstituted Leather", is not really a true leather but a man-made material composed of 90% to 100% leather fibers (often scrap from leather tanneries or leather workshops) bonded together with latex binders to create a look and feel similar to that of 'true' leather at a fraction of the cost. Bonded leather is not as durable as other leathers, and is recommended for use only if the product will be used infrequently. One example of bonded leather use is in Bible covers.
• Bycast leather is a split leather with a layer of polyurethane applied to the surface and then embossed. Bycast was originally made for the shoe industry and recently was adopted by the furniture industry. The original formula created by Bayer was strong, but expensive. Most of the Bycast used today is very strong and durable product. The result is a slightly stiffer product that is cheaper than top grain leather but has a much more consistent texture and is easier to clean and maintain.
The vast majority of leather is sold according to its area. The leather is placed through pin-wheel or electronic measuring machines and its surface area is determined. The unit of measurement is square meter, square decimeter or square foot. The thickness is also important, and this is measured using a thickness gauge (the unit of measurement is millimeters, e.g., 1.8 mm is a standard thickness for a school shoe).
In some parts of the world, top-grain thicknesses are described using weight units of ounces. Although the statement is in ounces only, it is an abbreviation of ounces per square foot. The thickness value can be obtained by the conversion: 1 oz/ft² = 1/64 inch (0.4 mm).
Hence, leather described as 7 to 8 oz is 7/64 to 8/64 inches (2.8 to 3.2 mm) thick. The weight is usually given as a range because the inherent variability of the material makes ensuring a precise thickness very difficult. Other leather manufacturers state the thickness directly in millimeters.
Today, most leather is made of cattle skin, but many exceptions exist. Lamb and deer skin are used for soft leather in more expensive apparels. Deer and elk skin are widely used in work gloves and indoor shoes. Pigskin is used in apparel and on seats of saddles.
Kangaroo skin is used to make items which need to be strong but flexible, it is the material most commonly used in high quality bullwhips. Kangaroo leather is favored by some motorcyclists for use in motorcycle leathers specifically because of its lighter weight and higher abrasion resistance compared with cowhide, thus providing greater protection in case of a fall on the roadway. Kangaroo leather is also used for high performance soccer footwear.
Leather made from more exotic skins has at different times in history been considered very beautiful. For this reason certain snakes and crocodiles have been hunted to near extinction.
In the 1970s, ostrich farming for their feathers became popular, and ostrich leather became available as a side product. There are different processes to produce different finishes for many applications, i.e., upholstery, footwear, automotive products, accessories and clothing. Ostrich leather is considered one of the finest and most durable in the world and is currently used by many major fashion houses such as Hermès, Prada, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton. Ostrich leather has a characteristic "goose bump" look because of the large follicles from which the feathers grew.
In Thailand, sting ray leather is used in wallets and belts in the same way as regular bovine leather. Sting ray leather is as tough and durable as hard plastic. The leather is often dyed black and covered with tiny round bumps in the natural pattern of the back ridge of an animal. These bumps are then usually dyed white to highlight the decoration. Leather clothing is also popular in Thailand. Sting ray leather is also used as grips on Japanese katana.
In the United States, bison leather has become popular. It is used for gloves, jackets and some baseball gloves. It is rugged but supple and has a waxy feel.
Overall, leather comes from a variety of other sources, including the skins of cattle, hogs, goats, sheep, alligators, ostriches, kangaroos, and yaks.
There is quite a wide range of different animal leather used both for leather garments as well as leather goods, such as handbags, wallets, purses, belts, bags and other customized leather articles.
The most commonly used leather types are cow leather, sheep leather, buffalo leather and ox leather. Of these, the most expensive is cow leather, followed by buffalo leather, ox leather and sheep leather respectively. Sheep leather is quite famous for its softness and mostly used in leather garments; however due to its smaller overall size, it cannot be used for the long coats for which cow leather and buffalo leather are widely used.