Today, leather is a commonly known and used material that can be found almost anywhere. However, did you know that the leather making process dates back to over 7,000 years ago? It is valued for its incredible strength, durability, flexibility, and longevity. Leather can be used to make boots, chaps, saddles, belts, furniture, and much more. So, how do we get the material used to make these beautiful products? What does the leather making process look like?
Well, you’re in luck because that’s exactly what we’re going to talk about! Read on as we discuss the important steps involved in making quality leather, the only kind we use here at Texas Saddlery. That way the next time you put on your favorite belt or pair of boots, you might just take an extra moment to think about the labor of love involved in making that beautiful leather.
Let’s start at the beginning: the raw material. Real leather--by that we mean not of a synthetic source such as plastic--begins with animal hide. Some common sources include cattle, sheep, and pigs. Up to 99% of hides are obtained from the dairy and meat industries, allowing for the preservation of a beautiful hide that might otherwise have been destroyed.
After the hide has been obtained and cleaned, it then has to be coated with a layer of salt to prevent the breakdown of the hide. Some additional hide preparations might include soaking and bathing to remove impurities and hair. Next, the leather is cut in half, with the top part of the leather being reserved for higher quality products.
The tanning stage is a crucial step in the leather making process. This is when the actual leathering of the hide happens. Why is this stage so important? During tanning, the proteins in the hide are preserved to prevent further decomposition. Additionally, through the process of tanning, the hides are able to maintain a flexible final state rather than a hard, brittle end result.
Okay, so we now know that tanning is important. But how does this stage work, is there just one method? Actually there are several different ways that tanning can be done. Most methods involve the hides being mixed in a drum with some kind of tanning solution. However, the specific method of tanning we are going to focus on is vegetable-tanned leather, as this is the kind of leather used here at Texas Saddlery.
Of all the methods of tanning, vegetable tanning has been around the longest. This kind of tanning process uses natural extracts found in tree bark called tannin extracts for the tanning solution. This method of tanning is the most eco-friendly way to tan leather and allows it to look even better with age. Over time leather will begin to develop a patina to it and will also darken up over time. This way you end up with a product that looks great coming off the rack and even better down the road.
We have now made it to the last stage of the leather making process, crusting. This stage is important because it lubricates and thins the leather.
Picking up where we left off, the leather has now finished its bath in the tanning solution, and gets softened through the use of fats applied to the leather. Next, the leather takes a trip through a set of rollers to squeeze out the water. After this, quality inspections and shaving occur to determine the leather’s end use and to make sure the leather is the necessary thickness. Depending on the leather’s end use it may even go through an optional second tanning process.
But to keep things brief we will move on to the dyeing stage. At this point, the leather has the chance to receive additional dyeing that can be done in a multitude of colors. This allows for customized colors to meet the specific look of a product. This can be a time consuming process as it is important to make sure the dye absorbs fully into the leather. After the leather has spent sufficient time dyeing, it is then rinsed and dried.
Sometimes after crusting, an additional coating can be added to the outside of the leather which is known as finishing to ensure that the leather is soft, flexible and lustrous. This is an optional step in the leather making process, but it is valuable as it offers protection to the leather and makes it easier to keep it clean.
After all these steps are complete, the leather then receives one final quality check to make sure it is ready for use.
At this point, it should be clear that there are MANY steps involved in making a piece of quality leather, long before it even begins to be crafted into that favorite leather wallet! From start to finish, to all the steps in between, it is safe to say that leather making is truly a labor of love.