September 30, 2021 6 min read
There seems to be a general understanding of where leather comes from. Many people know that it comes from the animal skin that is tanned and treated to be able to withstand consistent use and last longer. Leather products are commonly sourced from cattle, but other animals include deer, pigs, and sheep.
However, livestock can differ based on cultural norms that vary worldwide. In Asia, crocodile, alligator, and snake leather are made into popular accessories. You may also come across leather from ostriches and kangaroos in countries like China and India.
In the United States, we generally use cowhides. But there are more specifications here than what meets the eye— the logistics of where on the cow or what part of the hide is fascinating, and frankly, we just love to talk about them.
Cowhide is a popular hide to use in everything from footwear to phone cases, and for a good reason. Cowhide is noted for being tough and durable (as opposed to goat leather which is commonly associated with more fragile gloves). Cowhide is commonly seen in leather jackets and upholstery because it is a reliable and beautiful form of leather.
Cowhide is complex (sort of like human skin — not to get too graphic here). Cowhide consists of many different layers and sections, each with unique qualities.
Cows have separations vertically between layers of skin, and generally, different types of leather come from these different layers. It can be important to know these distinctions when trying to understand the difference between something like top grain leather and full-grain leather.
Like with any craft, the sourcing of your materials drastically impacts your finished product. Making a table out of teak versus oak will yield different properties. The same goes for leather. In this post, we will explain where exactly our leather comes from as it relates to the cow.
We will explain the different properties and advantages that it gives to our leather. Join us for a conversation about what our craft looks like at Andar and how the source of your leather item can be a total and complete game-changer.
At a chemical level, cowhide is a complex piece of organic matter. Derived from cows, leather is a product of the meat industry. After the beef is harvested, the material not fit for consumption (the hide) can take on a new form through the tanning process.
The leather industry is as old as dirt (endearingly): we have seen cave paintings featuring the use of leather from 40,000 years ago. Archeologists discovered the oldest leather shoe that dates almost 6,000 years ago.
The ancient Greeks used leaves and barks to create a mixture that tans leather.
Since this craft has been practiced for so long, the product that we have today yields the finest goods in terms of quality, innovation, and dedicated craftsmanship.
Still, understanding the general breakdown of the three main components of cowhide will be helpful for understanding where each type of leather comes from. From there, we can talk about the tanning and curing process that creates the beautiful, robust material you are familiar with.
The grain is really the best part of the cowhide. It is generally taken from the top of the cow, along the spine, as this is the most durable and robust piece of skin. The grain is the very top layer that is exposed to the natural elements that the livestock encountered. Because of this, it is able to withstand nearly anything.
Unsurprisingly, this is where we get our beautiful full-grain leather and also where top-grain leather comes from. The difference between these two grades is purely from the tanning and curing process. Generally, the higher-quality hides will be sent to full-grain leather producers, and the lesser hides will be sent to top-grain producers.
The corium is a layer below the grain. Technically, the corium wall separates the two, but this is extremely thin and is lost in the curing process. The corium is actually the thickest part of the cowhide.
From the corium, we get things like split-grain leather, suede, and genuine leather. These are all lesser leathers in terms of quality, as they are less sturdy and priced cheaper.
Most leather that you interact with is from the corium. Think of it like a softer version of grain, which means less reliability. It is more tender skin that breaks down more quickly.
PU leather is not real leather. PU leather is not made from cows but rather a mixture of plastics. It may feel a bit like leather at first, but it is not real cowhide at all.
One notable marker is that PU leather does not develop a patina but rather breaks down with normal wear and tear. The processes to make this are completely different, so the next section will not reference these specific types of leathers.
Sometimes PU leather is called "vegan leather." However, not all vegans support this leather as the chemicals used in the production process are quite dangerous to the environment.
There are many steps to making leather, but they all serve a purpose and are generally easy to understand. While some producers may lump a few together or make more separations of categories we lump together, this is generally the way that leather makers think about the leather-making process.
This is the very first step of making leather. Once the rawhide has been obtained generally via the meat or dairy industries, it is salted. The salt will keep any bacteria from starting to take hold.
Generally, this is done even before transport to make sure nothing spoils. Salt has been used for preservation since records of salt have existed. This method has stood the test of time.
Once the cowhide arrives at the tannery, it is soaked in water for several hours. This allows all of the salt and dirt to get off of the hide. It also expands quite a bit as the hide absorbs the water like a sponge.
Next, most tanners will “lime” the hide. Soaking it in lime juice is best for starting to break down the flesh on the underside of the hide. The acidity of the lime juice will begin to break down the remaining underside and kill any remaining bacteria.
Once the liming stage has been completed, the hide will go through several very complex machines. The way leather makers do this today is much different than how they did it in antiquity because of the advent of machines. Fleshing is the cutting of the flesh that has been softened with the liming stage by large horizontal blades.
Next, the hide is cut into the shape, size, or way that is desired. Generally, it will be in large rectangles. This is done either by hand or large machines as well.
Splitting is very important for understanding different grades of leather. The splitter cuts the leather horizontally along the corium wall to separate the grain from the corium. This is the part where the different chemicals and cuts will decide what grade leather you have.
The real star of the show now enters. Tanning consists of placing the grain or corium into large drums of tanning agents that are chemicals that will turn the protein of the cowhide into a strong material. It is then dried, rinsed, and squeezed. This process takes several rounds to get the desired texture.
When it comes to tanning, there are two main forms: chrome tanning and vegetable tanning. Chrome tanning involves salts and chemicals, and vegetable tanning relies on tree bark. For the purpose of this article, we will just touch on the former.
After tanning, some leathers are dyed. Not all are dyed. This is because dying partially covers the pores of the leather, which is not a desirable effect on full-grain.
Now, the shaping comes in:
At Andar, we are limited only by our imagination. We shape our full-grain into anything from wallets like our Apollo to purses or bags like our Addison. This is where the manufacturing process takes over, and the tanner steps back.
With our beautiful designs and high-grade leather, we try to merge the two processes in a way that all artists are happy with the finished product.
From start to finish, leather-making dips into age-old processes and new-age technologies to create something that is brand-new and age-old. It is one of the few textiles that tells a story about everywhere you take it and all the adventures in-between.
Sources:Studies on physical and chemical composition of lime (Citrus aurantifolia L.) | Chemi Journal