Interesting Information About Leather

Published: 08th December 2006
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Interesting Information About Leather

A lot of us today really love wearing leather. Seems like almost everyone loves the smell of good leather but few of us know about leather. Do you know the kind of leather you are wearing? What
state, country or even what kind of animal that the leather you are wearing comes from?

The manufacture of leather predates recorded history. There is evidence that some leather samples found in Northern Germany may have been produced perhaps 12,000 years ago.

The tanning procedure and grain of the leather is what determines and the animal it comes from will determine what you pay for the leather and where the quality stands between outstanding to very poor. There are so many different leathers on the market today and you really should know what you are getting for you money. Without knowing, you could very well be buying a jacket, vest, cycle accessories or any of many leather items that is made of poor quality and sold for a high quality price. Look for top grain or genuine leather when you buy. As time goes on, the terms we use to describe the quality of leather are becoming vaguer and could very well give you the impression of a poor quality leather as being a good quality. Some American and European stores are selling extremely poor quality cut Leather Goods and promoting them to the public as: 'Top Grain' or 'Genuine Leather' or 'Luxurious Leather'.

In the raw skin, at least four distinct structures can be distinguished:

1) the thin outermost layer termed the epidermis.

EPIDERMIS: A protective, hard-wearing layer of keratinous cells, which, although of varying thickness over the body of the animal, is very thin compared with the underlying DERMIS .

2) The grain layer or dermal surface

3) The juncture between the grain layer and the dermis or corium

4) The major portion of the skin (the DERMIS or corium), which is the part converted into leather.
Before tannage, the approximate composition of a freshly flayed hide is:
Water 64 %
Protein 33 %
Fats 2 %
Mineral salts 0.5%
Other substances (pigments, etc.) 0.5%

The 33% which is protein consists of:

1) Structural proteins, or Elastin (yellow fiber woven in the collagen fiber) 0.3%
Collagen (which tans to give leather)29%
Keratin (protein of the hair and epidermis)2 %

2) Non-structural proteins, or Albumens or globulins (soluble, non-fibrous proteins) 1 %
Mucins or mucoids (mucous materials associated with fibers).7%

Would you know what you were buying? I will give you some general terms that will help you better understand what to look for when buying your leather.

1) Top Grain Leather is the best The Very Best Genuine Leather. It is very strong and is great for protection. In earily times leather was also used for protection during battle. It was used on shields, on the fort towers and even wore on the body as armor. The very Top Part of any Hide. Top grain leather would be 2.5 or 3.0 ozs. But you could pay dearly for it.

2) First Cut Leather - which is of course the top grain or the genuine leather cut.

3) Split Leather - This would be the center of the hide. Can be, and sometimes is, made like and sold like first cut leather but not as strong as first cut. These are often sold in the discount
stores as top grain and most customers don't know the difference.

4) Buff Leather or Scraps - This would be the bottom layer which is weak and would have a real hard time being passed as top grain or even first cut. Used a lot for fashion wear.

5) Flank Leather or Scraps - This would be the belly and or the legs of the hide. Much weaker and usually used for mass production general dollar stores, flea markets, county fairs and
more fashion and fad type clothing that will end up in a yard sale somewhere. Not a leather that will last long and made from the lowest grade leather.

6) Lamb-Touch Leather - This is not actually leather but a tanning process. It's a process designed to give the harder and thicker leather a softer and smother feel to the touch. It's easy to
confuse this as actual lambskin leather. They are completely different leathers but with the lamb touch it's hard to tell.

7) Napa-Finish Leather- When talking of Napa we are usually speaking of pig hide or pig skin. Napa is a loose way of explaining a finish and can actually mean anything. Napa finish leather will
sometimes be combined with low quality wool to look quit expensive and sold for a good price. It gives the consumer the impression that it is a high grade, good quality leather when in fact, can be a very low quality. A good tanner can make this look like good grade lambskin when it may not be lambskin at all.

8) Suede Leather- Is the reverse layer of a Top-Grain or Genuine Leather Hide whose nap has been tanned and finished. Real Suede is smooth on one side. Split Leather can be processed to
appear 'Suede-like' and often fools a lot of un-suspecting Consumers. Its rough appearance on both sides usually gives it away if the Consumer is 'Suede Savvy'. Generally, 'Suede Like' articles
are found in low cost discount centers and are make from buff or scrap leather. Real suede can be pricey while the imitators should be fairly low in cost. If the Imitator is to high in price, reconsider your options. If the Store's Help does not know the difference between Suede-Like and Real Suede, reconsider your shopping options.

Let's talk about vegetable tanning:

This converts the protein of a raw hide or skin into leather by using of vegetable oils. It also make a more hard and dense leather which is more solid with a higher weight. It can also give the leather a pale brown look as in the all popular bomber jacket. The color however will begin to fade out of the leather. How soon depends on how good of a job the tanning was.

The traditional way of tanning is in a rocker vat. Especially where flatness of the leather is of great importance, as with bookbinding leather. Traditionally the skins are limed and unhaired, and delimed.

LIMING: One of the beamhouse operations employed in leather manufacture. Its purpose is to degrade, and thereby loosen, the epidermal structure of hide or skin, including the hair, epidermis,
sweat glands, etc., so that they may be removed. Methods of liming vary both in the chemicals used and in procedures. Unhairing and liming can be carried out simultaneously by immersing the skins in
the lime and water mixture, often with the addition of other chemicals known as sharpeners, e.g., sodium sulfide.

Lime, which is calcium oxide (CaO), reacts violently with water to form hydrated lime (calcium hydroxide (Ca(OH) 2 )), which can be used with safety in liming and unhairing because it will not damage the collagen fibers of the skin, assuming it is properly used. This is because calcium hydroxide is not very soluble in water, and, in fact, a saturated lime solution contains only approximately 1/8 part lime per 100 parts water. Even this limited solubility, however, is sufficient to produce a solution with a pH in the range of 12.4 or 12.5, and, under such very alkaline conditions, some of the young keratin protein decomposes to produce sulfur compounds in the lime liquor. These compounds, in conjunction with the lime, accentuate the further breakdown of keratin. The lime therefore promotes unhairing, and the more keratin breakdown impurities it contains, the more
rapidly it unhairs. Liming, however, must be carried out with extreme care, as the alkali also modifies and will eventually degradate t he collagen fibers of the skin. Skins limed for an overly prolonged time produce thin, loose, and weak leather.

After the liming process the material is placed into the vats as flat as possible with the tanning liquor at a fairly low backometer reading. Once the tanning liquor has penetrated through the skin
and put out to dry the finishing process begins. The traditional method of vegetable tanning was slow and expensive and, furthermore, did not always give the characteristics desired in the leather.
Not only was there sometimes too much firmness to the leather, but frequently the color of the leather was not as pale or as uniform as it can be made by the use of more modern methods of tanning.

The use of stronger liquors and the control of other ingredients used can produce a more satisfying leather in a shorter time. With the demand for leather products the faster they are produced, the more you can sell..

Leather for bookbinding should be tanned to give a pale, uniform, biscuit shade-one which can be readily dyed and finished in a variety of colors. The tannins in the leather should be well fixed and
not easily removed by wetting the leather, otherwise they may cause stains when the leather is paste-washed or otherwise moistened.

Do you really know what you are buying when you buy a leather jackets or another leather product. Chances are not even the sales person you buy it from can even tell you. If you buy a leather product that is a 1oz. then chances are that it was not made in the U.S.A. Most of your lower grade leather will come from a foreign country where it is made at a mass production plant. The thinner leather is easier to work with and therefore, used for fast, mass production. U.S.A. made products, such as the all popular bomber jackets are made of a 2.5oz. leather or better. If you want a heavier jacket that will last forever then you can go with the 4.0oz. stuff.

To determine the weight and value you take a 12in. by 12in. piece of the finished hide and compare the weight to the thickness. In other words, if the weight of the piece is 2.5oz then you have a 2.5oz. leather product. The 2.5oz. leather can still be made to be very soft and smooth to the touch. Of course the 4.0oz. leather will be much thicker and is almost like shoe leather. A jacket chaps or such apparel made of 4.0oz. leather will need some work to be soft enough for everyday wearing but is great protection for recreational use as in motorcycling, 4-wheeling and times when you need to protect yourself.

Now a little on the different animals from where you get your leather. Some of this is according to the Etherington & Roberts dictionary.

GOATSKIN: Goatskin is a great supple leather and is known for it's strength and long lasting feature. It was also used for military use to replace the more expensive leather such as horsehide or
sealskin during and before WW2. Mass production of goatskin started during the war era and the people were surprised to see its strength and lasting quality. In fact, it took place of the horsehide
and sealskin and was used by the war department when ww2 broke out. Goatskin from the U.S. is in extremely short supply and in high demand. Domestic goatskin is usually a lower grade skin then that of some imported goatskin. It is thinner, more brittle and not as strong and a lot of that is due to the diet of the goats. In the U.S.A we are more focused or raising beef and hogs for our meat more so the goats for the leather.

Buffalo: A leather produced in imitation of RUSSIA LEATHER , but of far greater strength than the genuine leather. It is made from the hide of the large, shaggy-maned North American ox, bison, and was used extensively in covering books in the United States in the latter half of the 19th century.

HORSEHIDE: Horsehide is very durable and today top grain horsehide is very hard to come by. Many tanneries are no longer using horsehide because of the expense and being hard to get. Due to the auto industry there are fewer horses then there were during and before ww2. The use of horsehide is on its way out except for a few high dollar accessories. There are not enough available horsehides for a tannery to make a living on.

COWHIDE: Cowhide is a strong and a good all purpose leather that has been around for years and will be for many years to come. Cattle are raised for our beef and what better way to use the hide but as leather. It is used for many products and one of those reasons is because of it's strength and ever lasting ability. Many different types of leather have been used in the past for our military but
the cowhide is becoming more popular. Genuine Cowhide can be processed into a very soft and smooth leather and can used for many different products. Cowhide can be, and is, used for purses, belts, jackets, vest, chaps, motorcycle accessories and much more. If you buy a product made of cowhide from a foreign manufacture, chances are that it has been split or they have used the weaker layers of the skin to make more products. It can still be labeled as genuine leather but what they don't tell you is that it is made from the poorest quality of genuine leather. When possible, always buy the top grain leather. Genuine Leather and Top Grain Leather should mean the same quality, but sometimes doesn't. Cowhide is not often used for covering books, except possibly very large volumes, such as blankbooks. Even the usual grain split is far too thick for the usual book, and, if pared to a thickness suitable for such a book, it loses a considerable part of its strength.

Calfskin leather: A leather produced from small, lightweight skins of calves that have not been weaned. It has a smooth or fine-boarded grain surface and is free of any artificial surface pattern. The finish is glossy and is produced by ironing, glazing, or plating. Baby calf is fairly tough leather with a dermal network of fine, even texture.

Hogskin: A soft leather produced from the skin of the peccary, genus Tayassu, and having a distinctive grain pattern formed by the hair follicles which are arranged in detached groups of three.

Pigskin: A leather produced from the skin of the domestic pig for use in bookbinding, it is vegetable tanned (or alum tawed). Pigskin has the characteristic grain pattern produced by the hair follicles,
which are arranged in (roughly) triangular groups of three. The nature of pigskin is such that the holes remaining following removal of the bristles can be seen on the flesh side as well as the grain
side. Pigskin is a tough and durable leather (and is even more durable perhaps when alum tawed) but is somewhat stiff and intractable. In addition, it does not tool readily, except in blind, although very fine bindings tooled in both blind and gold have been produced. It is a rugged leather best used on large books which can more readily emphasize its rugged characteristics. Pigskin was used
extensively as a bookbinding leather in Germany from about 1550 to 1640, usually on books having wooden boards.

Buckskin: A leather produced from the hides of male deer or elk. It usually has a suede finish and
is oil tanned or alum tawed. It has a soft texture, and is pliable and reasonably strong. Examples of its use (in England) can be traced back to the 16th century. Imitation buckskin is sometimes made
from sheepskin.

LAMBSKIN: The tanned skin of a young sheep. Vegetable tanned lambskin was highly prized in the latter part of the 19th century as a bookbinding leather because of its delicate colors, and also for
limp bindings because of its softness and freedom from scratches and other blemishes. Lambskin is similar in appearance to calfskin but is less durable.

hair sheep: Leather made from the skin of a sheep that grows hair instead of wool The hair sheep is found in the mountainous regions of India, China, South America, and Africa. The leather produced form these skins has a finer and tougher grain than that made from wool-bearing sheep.

SHEARLING: Shearling is a soft and highly respected luxury that comes from sheep. It takes a lot of sheep to make a shearling coat and requires a lot of work. If you are buying a real shearling coat
you can expect to pay a good penny for it. Be sure not to confuse "sherpa" with shearling. Sherpa is a artificial substitute for shearling so be sure you are getting what you are paying for.

Kangaroo skin: The skin of the herbivorous marsupials of Australia, New Guinea, etc., which when properly tanned, makes a supple and durable bookbinding leather. Today, it is generally chrome tanned with a glazed finish, thus making it unsuitable for use as a bookbinding leather. It is said to be stronger, weight for weight, than any other leather.

Alligator leather: A leather produced from the skin of any member of the reptilian order Crocodilla. Generally, only the belly area of the animal is used, the heavily scaled back being too course and horny. The beauty of alligator leather stems in part from the fact that the scales have a natural "enamel," which, originally, was usually destroyed by crude tanning methods. Later it was preserved, and even enhanced, by "plating" the skin with heated metal plates which gave it its high glaze. Alligator leather is very durable and also very expensive. This term is largely confined to the United States; in Europe it is generally called "crocodile leather."

Sealskin: A light, tough leather of very fine quality and distinctive appearance, with excellent wearing qualities, produced from the skins of various species of seals. It may be finished with its own
delicate grain pattern and lustrous surface, or with a bold grain produced by a combination of embossing and boarding. While customarily black it is also produced in colors. Although its use as a covering material for books goes back hundreds of years, it is little used today because of the declining number of seals, and the excessive oiliness of the skin.

Walrus hide: A leather produced from the hide of a walrus, or the skin of a seal or sea lion, split, and used occasionally for covering books. Subsequent to tanning and splitting, it is difficult to
distinguish between leather made from sealskin and walrus hide, and the names are often used interchangeably. "Walrus grain" is a term used to indicate a cowhide, sheepskin, or goatskin, as well
as splits of various hides, embossed in imitation of walrus hide. In such cases, the proper description is "walrus-grained cowhide," etc.

True U.S. made vs. U. S. Made Labeling

It is becoming more difficult year after year to determine the difference between "true U.S." leather and the imported goods from another country. This is true even for the ones who sell the goods so
imagine how the consumer can be fooled.

Just because it says USA made does not mean that it was made in the USA. Many of us are unaware that many products, not just leather goods, are made what is called "off-shore" and then finished on-shore so that a USA made label can legally be placed on the finished product. This procedure makes it nearly impossible to know where your product is from or how many hands it pasted through before you purchase it. I for one don't like this process but they call it "progress". You also have this in the auto industry and others. Sometimes the leather is tanned and processed in a foreign country and shipped to the U. S. where the zipper, snaps, and linings are later affixed to the garment and a Made in the USA Label then sown onto the piece and is absolutely legal according to the Federal Trade Commission.

And then you have of course, the label switch game. Taking off the foreign label and replacing it with the all popular "Made in the USA" label. This is not uncommon at all. It goes on all day everyday. This is done in order to sell the product to the average consumer for a higher price and usually works. Many consumers don't know the difference. They buy what looks good and if it says made in the USA they will pay twice the amount for it.

Any product made in the USA can have some buttons, zippers, or snaps from another country and is still completely legal to have the "Made in the USA label on it.

Most times you get what you pay for but all too many times you pay twice or even more then that for the product you buy. Sometimes it all depends on who you buy from as to how much you pay for good leather and how many hands it went through. Of course as with any product, the fewer hands, the less you will pay. Therefore it is possible to buy good leather at a reasonable price. No one wants to pay an arm and a leg when buying there leather product so a little knowledge about the product can go a long way.

Thank you for reading my article on leather.
Steve Purtlebaugh

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