Types of Leather
Leather can be considered mankind’s first fabric, but the art and science of leather production has come a long way since the time of early humans.
From earthen vats to modern industrial methods, leather tanning has developed into such a diversity of types and styles that it can be bewildering to newcomers. Animal type, location on the animal, tanning method, finishes, and unique animal characteristics can all influence which leather to choose.
What Is Tanning?
Tanning is the process of removing volatile natural oils from animal hides, preserving it with tannins or chemicals, and re-introducing shelf-stable oils for flex and suppleness.
Why Use Leather?
Easier to form than wood and sturdier and longer-lasting than fabric, leather is unique among all materials for its combination of strength, flexibility, and durability.
Thanks to its beauty, strength, and durability, leather has been a fine and treasured material since ancient days. The Egyptians valued leather as much as gold, and the Romans judged a man’s rank by the quality of his sandals. Even today, ancient leather artifacts are still being unearthed from the ground.
In modern times, leather is used for everything from upholstering soft sofas to hardy horse reins, and this variety of uses is reflected in the types of leather available on the market. Leather can be thick or thin; soft like fabric or firm like wood; dyed candy colors or matte and natural; as stretchy as elastic or unyielding; plasticized or raw.
The use of leather can be a sensitive topic for some. Although few leathercrafters are vegetarians, most respect and revere the material, and see leathercraft as a way to honor the whole animal. The projects in this book use only leather made from animals for which the hide is a byproduct of another industry. Without leathercrafting, the hide would simply be landfilled.
The challenge for every leathercrafter is to know the material well enough to choose the right leather for the right project, and to treat the often-expensive material with the respect it deserves.
Garment leather, also called chrome-tanned, uses a method of tanning invented during the late eighteen-hundreds for modern machinery and mass-production. The tanning process utilizes chromium and mercury instead of plant tannins and can take as little as one day. The resulting leather is soft and has a fabric-like drape, and comes dyed in any number of colors, including bold and vibrant colors like hot pink or bright white.
Garment leather is not colorfast; although colors stay intact in wet conditions, they can fade in the sun. The dye usually saturates completely through the thickness of the leather, called aniline leather. Usually used in shoes, purses, and clothing, garment leathers are stretchy yet strong.
Garment leather can be purchased in deerskin, pigskin, and lambskin in addition to cowhide.
Bridle leather is full grain vegetable-tanned leather, with extra finishes given at the tannery. Developed for equestrian bridles and riding gear, bridle leather is infused with copious waxes and oils to stand up to rough outdoor use and horse sweat.
Waxes prevent the penetration of dye, so bridle leather comes pre-dyed. Only available in a limited number of natural color tones, the dye is usually applied with a drum-dyeing process by tumbling the hides with dyes in a drum. Both the grain side and flesh side are treated with dyes, oils, and waxes, for a smooth, comfortable feel for the horse and a completely finished-looking product on both sides.
The double finish makes bridle leather ideal to use for projects that need to look finished on both sides.
Until the Industrial Revolution, there was really only one kind of leather: full grain “vegetable-tanned” leather, also known as oak leather. Unsanded to show the natural grain, it is the highest quality leather for a craftsperson.
Vegetable-tanned leather is produced by immersing the hide in a tannin solution of water, ground plant bark, and leaves. Usually the solution contains oak, but it may also use hemlock, birch, chestnut, or other trees. Traditional tanneries contain this solution in earthen pits, while industrial tanneries use modern machinery. Because of these natural materials, it is considered the most environmentally friendly method of tanning.
One of the most notable qualities of vegetable-tanned leather is that it wears well with age, developing a lustrous patina with use. The more it is handled, the better it looks. However, if left un-handled in adverse conditions, it can deteriorate and may need regular conditioning treatments. Too dry and the leather can become brittle. Too damp and it can molder.
Vegetable-tanned leather has a special relationship with water, becoming pliable when wet and stiffening into a hard shape when dry. It is also photosensitive in its natural state, before dyeing. Just a couple hours in direct sunshine can turn the leather from a light tan to a dark brown. Oils transferred from the skin when handling and conditioning treatments will also darken the leather slightly, creating a rich patina over time.
While the projects in this book feature only garment, vegetable-tanned, and bridle leather made from cow hide, there are many other types of leather available. Consider one of these unique leathers for a special project.
Pigskin Not actually used for footballs as the urban legend has it, pig leather, also known as Berkshire, is used in apparel and on saddles.
Sheepskin Sheepskin is usually tanned with the warm, soft fleece intact, and used most often for boot liners, clothing, and as floor pelts.
Fish A traditional craft of Norway and Iceland, fish leather, particularly salmon skin, is growing in popularity and distinctive for its scaly texture.
Kangaroo Kangaroo are harvested for meat and their skin is particularly light but strong. It is most often used in motorcycle gear and whips.
Kidskin The skin of young goats (called “kids”) is soft, thin, and delicate and best known for use in glove making.
Deerskin Deerskin is tough and water-resistant leather, most often used in overcoats and gloves.