Ever wondered how leather is made? I wanted to know this before I even started leatherworking. How they managed to turn an animal’s skin into something so durable with so many uses. Then all the different types of leather, textures, colors, shapes, and sizes. It always interested me, and it is something that has been a part of human history since the beginning.
The process of making leather takes a lot of time, skill, and effort. It requires several different processes to get it from a raw hide to the luxury items we love and use every day. I have broken the process of making leather down to 7 steps giving you a breakdown of what happens to the leather from the moment it´s separated from the animal to becoming a luxury wallet.
How Is Leather Made Step by Step
Preparing the Raw Hides:
The process begins with the collection of raw animal hides, usually obtained from cattle, sheep, goats, or other animals raised for meat consumption. Then begins the lengthy process of turning these raw hides in to a usable leather product.
Collection and Sorting Leather:
The raw animal hides are mainly collected from farms and abattoirs. Upon arrival to the tannery the hides are sorted based on factors such the species of animal, quality, and size. The sorting of the hides helps determine what treatment will be applied to each type of hide.
Soaking and Liming Leather:
The hides are then soaked in water to loosen and remove any dirt, blood, or excess salt. The soaking of leather also softens the hide fir easier handling. Depending on the size and thickness of the hide, to soak can last from a few hours up to a few days.
After being soaked, the hides are then submerged in a lime solution to loosen the hairs and remove the epidermis layer from the skins.
The hides are soaked in water to remove any dirt, blood, or excess salt. Next, they are treated with a lime solution to loosen the hair follicles and remove the epidermis. This process is known as liming and helps in preparing the hides for the hair removal stage.
Once the hides are done with the Liming, the hair on the hide now needs to be removed to give the leather the texture and appearance we are used to seeing. They are chemically or mechanically treated to remove all the hair.
The mechanical way is to use a machine that has rotating paddles that scrape off the hair. More modern methods are to use chemicals that dissolve most of the hair, leaving little mechanical work to be done.
Fleshing and Splitting Leather
Fleshing gives the leather a cleaner surface for the further processing to come.
Once the hair has been removed from the hide, any remaining flesh, fat or muscle tissue is mechanically removed from the bottom of the hide. This can also be done by hand and has been done that way for thousands of years But now there are specialized machines equipped with blades that scrape of the excess material.
The hides are then split into two layers. The top-grain and the split. The top-grain is the higher quality part of the leather, and the split is the lesser quality inner layer of the hide. If you want to know more about the difference between top-grain and split leather, you can check out a full article on the topic here.
Tanning the Leather:
The tanning process is one of the most important steps in transforming raw hides into durable leather. There are two primary methods of tanning leather, vegetable tanning and chrome tanning.
Vegetable tanning uses more natural process, with tannins derived mostly from plant sources, whereas chrome tanning uses chromium salts,
Tanning is the crucial step that transforms raw hides into durable leather. There are two primary tanning methods: vegetable tanning and chrome tanning. Vegetable tanning involves using tannins derived from plant sources, resulting in a leather that ages well and develops a rich patina over time.
Chrome tanning uses chromium salts that is quicker than vegetable tanning and offers improved color and consistency of the leather. The chemicals can be harsh so make sure the producers of the leather you buy are being responsible with their waste management.
Dyeing and Finishing Leather:
After the tanning of the hide, the leather is ready for some color. Dyes and pigments will be added to the hide until the desired color is achieves, and it can further be treated with oils and waxes to enhance the softness and durability of the leather. The way each tannery achieves their colors is different, so the ways to color are not the same for all.
Some tanneries have perfected mixing vegetable extracts with tree bark to tan leather, others have their own proprietary blends, all learned over years of trial and error. Experience and consistency are paramount in this part of the process.
There can be some further finishing processes like embossing, buffing, or applying a protective coating for more specific uses of leather.
Once the hides have passed the last quality control check for any marks, scuffs or scars, they are ready to be used and turned into one of the many items used on a daily basis all over the world.
Top Grain vs Split Leather
I have a more comprehensive article on this, but I want to let you know a little about top-grain and split leather:
Top Grain Leather:
Top grain leather refers to the upper layer of the hide, which is closest to the hair. Known for its natural grain, this layer is considered the highest quality part of the hide. Top grain leather keeps the original markings, such as wrinkles, scars, and grain patterns, making each piece unique.
Characteristics of Top Grain Leather:
Durability: Top grain leather is more durable and resistant to wear & tear compared to split leather. It is less likely to crack or stretch over time.
Natural Appearance: The natural grain patterns and markings on top grain leather give it an authentic and rustic appearance.
Softness and Suppleness: Top grain leather is generally softer and more supple than split leather, providing a comfortable feel.
Breathability: This type of leather allows for better breathability, making it suitable for products like jackets or furniture.
Split leather refers to the lower layer of the hide that remains after the top grain has been separated. It is obtained by splitting the hide horizontally. Split leather is typically used for products where the appearance of the leather surface is less critical or where cost considerations come into play.
Characteristics of Split Leather:
Thickness: Split leather is usually thinner than top grain leather and may require additional treatment to enhance its strength.
Smooth Surface: The surface of split leather is smoother because the natural grain has been removed during the splitting process.
Suede or Finished: Split leather can be further processed into suede or finished leather. Suede is created by buffing the split side to create a soft, velvety texture, while finished split leather is treated with a coating or embossed to resemble top grain leather.
Uses of Top Grain and Split Leather:
Due to its superior quality and natural appearance, top grain leather is commonly used for high-end leather goods such as luxury handbags, wallets, belts, and high-quality furniture. Split leather, on the other hand, finds applications in products like suede jackets, inexpensive furniture, and items where cost is a primary consideration.
how is leather made supple?
Leather is made supple through a process called "fatliquoring." During tanning, oils, fats, or emulsions are added to the leather to lubricate the fibers and make them flexible. These substances penetrate the leather structure, lubricating the fibers and reducing friction, which allows the leather to bend and flex without cracking.
how is leather made to look like ostrich?
Leather can be embossed to take on the texture of ostrich skin, alligator and even snakeskin. But often you may have genuine ostrich leather which can be expensive.
how is leather made with cow dung?
In a process called ¨dunging¨, the cow dung is mixed with water to create a solution. The hides are soaked in this solution, letting the enzymes present in the dung to break down the fats and proteins in the hide. After dunging, the hide goes through the usual tanning and finishing process.
how is leather made for couches?
Leather for couches is made in the same way as most other leathers. Once ready, leather is dyed, finished, and buffed to create a soft and durable surface suitable for couch upholstery.
how is leather made from cows?
The vast majority if the hides from the livestock industry are sent to the tanneries to be processed and turned into usable leather.
how is leather made black?
The hides are dyed in drums depending on demand using vegetable tanning or chromium chemical processes. Some tanneries have a set number of colors they produce and focus on consistency in texture and color using old tried and trusted techniques.
how is alligator leather made?
This falls under exotic leather, and much of the supply comes from places it is legal to hunt alligators.
The journey from raw animal hides to a finished leather product involves a series of intricate steps and skilled craftsmanship. From soaking and liming to tanning, dyeing, and finishing, each stage plays a crucial role in transforming hides into high-quality leather. Understanding the meticulous process behind leather production can deepen our appreciation for this remarkable material that has stood the test of time, capturing the essence of durability, style, and luxury.
I buy most of my leather from a small shop here in Madrid, Spain that mainly provides leather for harnesses. But there are a lot of Artisans in Madrid, so they supply a lot of leather for crafts as well. All the leather comes from a local tannery here in Spain, so I can count on the quality every time and I have been to the tannery, and they make a great deal on keeping the surrounding areas clean of any chemicals they may use.
If you are getting in to leather-working, or just wanting to know a little more about how leather is made, I hope I have given you enough information and you found it useful.