Leather is a sturdy material that gets developed through lengthy, technical processes to ensure you receive the precision and quality you deserve in the final product. When the right steps are followed, a high-quality, characterful finish is possible each time.
When leather’s journey begins, it starts as a piece (or layer) of animal hide. It ends as a material suitable for use for a whole host of goods, from premium bags, backpacks, and wallets to boots and journals.
What makes it such a unique material is that each leather crafts-person puts their own spin on the creation process. Even if items are mass-produced, the equipment operators all have a personal way of going about their business.
That’s why leather products look and feel like they were made bespoke only for you.
What Is the Raw Material Used for Leather?
Leather can come from virtually any animal hide. Although the most common form is that from cows, you can find goats, sheep, and pigs and even horses included in that conversation.
You can even make more exotic leather styles from an alligator, crocodile, ostrich and even zebra hide.
Since the meat and dairy industry produces significant cowhide quantities, leathermakers take a product that would otherwise be wasted to turn it into something useful. When the proper leathermaking techniques get used, a premium bag or leather backpack can last for several decades.
The leather’s quality is often dependent upon the animal’s upbringing and environment. Animals that run into barbed wire, have insect bites or receive brands are less likely to produce a premium hide. Even growth hormones, grain-heavy diets and climate can impact the hide’s quality.
The animal’s skin gets removed to prepare the hide. It is crucial to get rid of the flesh as quickly as possible to have the material start drying. Once the process is complete, you’ve got a clean white surface that often requires a salt brine.
Without salt, the natural materials will continue decomposing. That makes the potential leather useless.
Hide with hair on it will often go through a lime bath, with the soaking process taking up to 48 hours. This step softens the material for use in multiple applications.
Once the moisture enters the material, the animal hide swells to the point where it gets spliced into two unique layers. The upper part of that split delivers the premier full-grain leather products that turn into incredible heirloom-quality items.
The animal hide’s upper layer has a denser, tighter fibre structure that makes it more durable. With proper treatment, it becomes supple and supportive, creating a stunning result.
What Happens to the Bottom Layer of the Split?
When the top layer of a split animal hide gets used for full-grain leather products, the bottom portion doesn’t get tossed away.
That portion becomes the foundation of less expensive leather products. Although the quality is lower than the upper part because of the lower fibre count, you can still enjoy the many benefits that this material provides.
If you purchase items made from “split leather” or “genuine leather,” you’re getting the bottom portion instead of the top.
Leather Undergoes a Tanning Process to Convert It
Since leather comes from a natural source, it will decompose if it doesn’t get converted into usable materials. Heavy salting or brine can prevent the initial transition for some time, but it isn’t a permanent solution.
The only way to make animal hide a usable material is to preserve it through tanning to halt the decomposition.
Animal hides get loaded into drums using a specific tanning solution. If you buy an all-natural full-grain leather product, it was likely preserved using a vegetable tanning agent. The tanning in this process comes from tree bark, creating leather that works well for furniture, luggage, and high-quality bags or backpacks.
Another option is to use a chromium salt mix to complete the tanning process. This solution preserves the leather, it becomes more stretchable. It’s usually used to make clothing items.
Full-bodied leather products might use a mix of both tanning solutions.
At the end of the tanning process, leathermakers incorporate special fats to help it be softer and more robust. That step is called “liquoring.”
Any remaining moisture in the hide gets removed here, with rollers applying high pressure to the materials to extract the water. Once it dries, leather makers inspect and arrange each piece to determine its overall quality.
This grading process is what decides how the hides get used. They’ll be shaved to a uniform width, with the shavings turned into belts, bonded leather products, or similar products.
What Does It Mean If Leather Requires Re-Tanning?
A second tanning process is sometimes necessary to get the leather ready for its eventual purpose.
It goes into the drum again, getting exposed to the chromium salts, vegetable tannins, or both. Leathermakers will extract the excess moisture again using the high-pressure rollers.
Once it is prepared for use, the hides must dry. Depending on the processes used, it could be air-dried or vacuum-dried to create the intended result. The latter option causes the materials to shrink some, but it also delivers a tight texture with remarkable smoothness.
Bleaching agents are sometimes used at this step to start the process of dye incorporation.
Leather receives its beautiful color because of the dyes that leathermakers use during the finishing stages. Although natural tones, such as brown and black, are commonly used, anything hue is possible.
Most leather manufacturers use software-based formulations to ensure each dye gets applied appropriately to produce consistent coloring outcomes.
Dyeing can be a lengthy process, with the chosen colour exposed for a significant time to ensure it takes to the materials. Most leathermakers take a small cutting around the eight-hour mark to determine if full saturation occurred.
Once it reaches that stage, the leather gets thoroughly rinsed. It must get dried again before the materials get worked to that supple, glossy finish we all love. A final quality check ensures everything is ready to be sent to craftspeople.
At this point, the leather can get turned into whatever products are desired. That’s how we get leather handbags, luggage, weekenders, leather accessories, and much more.