Leather comes from the hide of animals such as the cow, pig, sheep, crocodile, alligator, snake, and kangaroo. Exotic leather can even come from animals such as the stingray, ostrich, eel, or lizards. Producing leather involves a number of processes, including preparation, tanning, and the final drying stage. Explore the fascinating history of this natural product to appreciate it to the fullest. And after spending money on leather products, learn recommendations for caring for leather to keep it supple and beautiful.
History of Leather
Ancient people made leather from the animals they hunted. These people may have also butchered their livestock to use the skins for leather. One of the main appeals of leather is its strength, making it suitable for a variety of purposes. Leather skins were used for clothing, tools, ornamentation, blankets, and tents. Ancient Egyptians even used it for buckets, bottles, military equipment, and shrouds to bury their dead. Ancient leather had some problems due to rudimentary processing techniques used during this time. Leather decayed in warm temperatures, and it became very stiff in cold temperatures. To solve these problems, people learned to rub animal fats into the hide. This process was the beginning of leather tanning. As leather processing techniques have evolved, this material has become easier to work with and more pleasant to use.
- History of Leather
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- History Exhibit
- History of Leather Tanning in the United States (PDF)
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Types and Uses of Leather
Numerous types of leather exist, suitable for different uses. Types of leather are based on the animal from which the leather originates. Cabretta leather comes from sheepskin, and this type of leather is often used for gloves. Calfskin leather is exceptionally soft and supple. This type of leather is typically used to make gloves and boots. Nubuck leather comes from cow hide. Nubuck leather receives special sanding to give the surface a subtle nap. Pigskin leather has the advantage of both strength and softness, making it ideal for boots, wallets, gloves, and saddles. Rolled leather might be made from lambskin or calfskin. The cylindrical shape of rolled leather makes it suitable for items with straps, such as halters.
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Tanning leather is the process of processing and preparing leather for use. Without tanning, bacteria will build up on the surfaces of leather, causing it to decay. Tanning removes the organic matter naturally present in leather, replacing it with stable chemicals that will not break down. Tanning may involve different chemicals or ingredients. In the United States, the most common tanning ingredients are vegetable tannins and trivalent chromium. Other tanning agents include formaldehyde, alum, and syntans. Vegetable tanning is the oldest tanning method. After trimming, soaking, and fleshing, processors remove hair from the hide or skin. Deliming and bating processes prepare the surfaces for vegetable tanning. The vegetable tanning process involves soaking over a three-week period. After soaking, the leather is dried to complete the tanning process. Chemical tanning usually produces a softer and more supple leather product. This process is also faster than vegetable tanning. While the steps for tanning are mostly the same for both chemical and vegetable tanning, the soaking process is shorter for chemical tanning. In addition, leather may be re-tanned or dyed after drying to add extra softness and color variations.
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Caring for Leather
Leather requires specific maintenance and care to maintain its quality. Over time, leather will age. While it’s not possible to avoid this aging, proper care will ensure that leather ages well to develop a beautiful patina. Keep leather clean by removing dust regularly. If leather becomes dirty, wipe it gently with a damp cloth. You might use a mild soap on leather, if necessary. Remove the soap with plain water, and dry the leather thoroughly. Avoid allowing excess moisture to sit on a leather surface, because water can damage leather. Consider using a leather protector or conditioning product to maintain leather’s supple appearance. Consult specific manufacturer recommendations for a leather item, and follow these guidelines carefully for best results. Leather protector can help minimize moisture damage and cracking.
- ABCs of Leatherworking (PDF)
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