Where does leather come from?
Leather is the product of an age-old process
The leather in shoes, furniture, clothing, handbags, luggage and a myriad of other common items has traveled a fascinating route before reaching its final destination.
Leather use dates back to the Palaeolithic period, according to cave paintings found in Spain that depict the use of leather clothing. Animals were hunted for food and their hides and skins were used to create clothing, footwear and tents. The process of transforming animal hide to leather remains the same, although the procedure has become more high tech and efficient over the years.
If animal skins are going to be used for leather coats and other items, they have to be treated or they will putrefy. The earliest method of preserving skins involved stretching the hides and skin, allowing them to dry in the sun, and then, when they had dried, rubbing them with animal brains and fat to condition them.
Early leather makers discovered that smoke preserves skins and hides. So did treating skins and hides with a mixture of tannin containing barks, twigs, leaves and certain fruits. It is possible that primitive man accidentally discovered that skins and hides, when left on the ground, were naturally treated via the chemicals released by decaying vegetation and leaves.
As humans became more sophisticated, the use of earth salts containing alum were found to act as a tanning agent and result in soft white leather.
To convert a pelt into leather, tanning is required. This was achieved by dusting the raw stock with organic matter and then placing the pelt in a vat or pit filled with tannin solution. It could take up to two years for a very thick hide to be fully penetrated by the tannin solution.
Once that was accomplished, the hide was hung in an open shed for a few days. The leather was then dressed, which involved shaving or paring it down to the correct thickness. Coloring was added, the hide was treated with greases and oils, and then it was dried. The last step required treating the grainy surface with waxes and proteins (egg albumins and blood) and shellac, which resulted in an attractive surface.
We know the ancient Romans and Greeks used leather particularly for their footwear (the ubiquitous sandals), as well as their military equipment, particularly their shields, and for harnesses and saddles.
Britain became hip to leather when Rome invaded England, and also courtesy of monks, who were experts in leather making. By medieval times, almost every town had a tannery.
Over the years, chemicals such as sulphuric acid and lime were introduced into the process. Leather production eventually became a chemically based process and the old methods were discarded. Leather is versatile, stylish, thoroughly contemporary material. Easy to clean, durable and affordable, leather has come a long way from its caveman roots.