What every consumer should know about leather
Boconi Leather. Photo from www.epicmens.com.
What do a new car, a new pair of shoes and a new briefcase all have in common? They all have that irresistible smell of new leather. You know the one. Rich, earthy, clean, timeless – it’s like the olfactory version of comfort food. Who can resist one good whiff? Certainly not us. Here at Epic Mens, we’re lucky to carry several top leather accessory lines for men, including Torino Leather, Boconi, Hook & Albert, Tateossian, W. Kleinberg, and the Jack Mason Brand. But as much as we have always appreciated the look, feel – and smell – of our genuine leather wallets, belts, and bags, we suspected we’d appreciate them more if we knew how raw hides actually become usable leather. Turns out, we were right. We’d barely begun to tap the wealth of information available at the BLC Leather Technology Centre (leather industry’s go-to consulting site), before we were confronted by the depth of our ignorance, not only about the manufacturing process, but also about the industry’s unique vernacular. A few hours of research might not qualify us as experts, but we’re definitely better informed, and the good news is – we’re willing to share our newfound knowledge. So, if you’re at all curious about how that leather belt holding up your pants came to be, read on and prepare to be enlightened.
History of Leather
It’s a safe bet you look better in your leather garb than the typical cave dweller, but the truth is the first use of leather dates all the way back to the Paleolithic Era. It seems our club-wielding ancestors discovered how to make leather when they found animal skins tanning naturally on the wet forest floor. From there, it was just a skip, hop and a jump to learning how to tan hides with smoke and natural mixtures of bark, leaves, twigs and fruits. Rubbing hides with fats and animal brains also helped preserve and soften the material. Later, salts and natural dyes were added to the process.
By the time the Middle Ages rolled around, most towns and villages boasted a tannery close to a water source that could power a waterwheel and machinery. Now, a staple of everyday life, leather was being used in the manufacture of footwear, apparel, weaponry, saddles, harnesses, containers, and even in parchment and hull coverings for ships. Eventually, leather found its way into book bindings, upholstery and wall coverings, and then with the dawn of industrialization, into belting for machines and upholstery for motor and railway cars. Traditional tanning mixtures were replaced by chemicals like lime and sulphuric acid, and contemporary tanning methods took root.
21st Century Leathers
Modern-day tanners are highly trained craftsmen, who manage a complicated, lengthy process involving no less than 20 steps, beginning with curing and soaking and ending with buffing and finishing. Although exotic skins, such as alligator, ostrich, snake, shark and seal, are prized for their unique appeal, most leathers available today are by-products of sheep, pigs, and cattle raised for meat, wool, and dairy foodstuffs. In fact, the hide actually constitutes only 5 to 10 percent of the animal’s market value. Worldwide, leather manufacturers comprise a 45 billion-dollar industry that produces more than 20 billion square feet of product annually. Industry insiders contend the average consumer wears or carries a half dozen leather products with him every day, including shoes, belts, wallets, bags, cases, and watch straps. If you are one of the many who enjoy wearing and using leather goods, you might want to add the following words to your glossary. Will knowing the difference between and aniline and nubuck make you a leather connoisseur? Probably not, but it’ll help you make a more informed choice the next time you shop for a pricey pair of shoes or quality belt.
Leather: tanned hide or skin with intact fibrous structure, coated with a protective layering that does not exceed 0.15mm or 30% of product’s overall thickness.
Tanning: process that uses chromium salts, aldehyde, oil, or vegetable extracts to convert protein in the hide into a stable material that will not putrefy over time. Tanning protects the hide from the detrimental effects of acid, alkalis, heat, water, and microorganisms.
Calfskin: hide of a younger animal that produces a finer, more flexible – but equally durable – finished product.
Split leather: thick hide that has been split into two layers. The bottom layer without the grain is typically used to produce suede or is covered with a polymer coating and embossed with an artificial grain pattern. Splitting the hide weakens the leather and shortens its expected lifespan.
Suede: bottom layer of split leather that has been abraded to create a distinctive nap.
Nubuck: top layer of split leather that has been lightly abraded on grain surface to create a velvety finish or nap. Slightly more durable than suede.
Full-grain leather: leather that has not been sanded or buffed and still retains all natural markings and imperfections, including the original grain, pores and wrinkles.
Aniline: light surface coating that allows leather to retain its natural appearance. Aniline leather feels flexible and light, but is less resistant to soil than other more heavily protected leathers. Can be difficult to clean.
Pigmented leather: leather protected with a durable polymer coating that resists scuffing and fading. Appears less natural than aniline leather and is found in almost all car upholstery.
Embossing: process that uses extreme pressure to press an artificial pattern onto the leather’s surface, for example, an alligator pattern on cowhide.
Bonded leather fiber: hide that has been disintegrated mechanically or chemically into particles and then remade into large sheets. Typically used in thickly coated or laminated products. Not considered true leather.
Bloom or spue: white substance that appears on poorly processed leathers as a result of changes in temperature or humidity levels. Caused by natural fats in the hide.
Choosing the right type of leather is only the first step. Quality leather pieces can last a lifetime if they are well cared for. The most important tips appear to be avoiding inks that can cause permanent stains (wish we knew that one earlier) and allowing wet leather to dry at room temperature in its original shape. Too much heat can cause shrinkage, brittleness and cracking (again, would have been nice to know before we placed those leather gloves next to the radiator). If added protection or cleaning is necessary, waterproofing sprays, cleaning solutions and suede brushes are all readily available in most shoe and sporting goods stores.
If you managed to read this entire article, you are officially a quasi-expert on the subject of leather. Now’s the time to reflect on what you’ve learned. And before you forget everything, put your new expertise to work choosing your next leather acquisition - or at least go admire the leather pieces you already own.