About Leather

Leather of course is the skin of an animal, any animal, that has been chemically stabilized or "tanned" to prevent deterioration. Most of the leather used today is a byproduct of the food industry, with cows, sheep, and goats being the most common source. We at Highland Leather use only leather made from domestic food animals, we do not use wild caught or exotic skins.

Tanning Processes

The word Tanning derives from the traditional practice of using tannins found in plant matter to stabilize the raw skins. This type of tanning is known as "oak" or bark tanning because hardwoods such as oak are the best sources for the tannins. Other tanning processes include chrome, the most common in use today, and oil tanning used for outdoor gear. Often two or more methods are combined to yield the most satisfactory result.

Oak Tanning produces a firm and durable skin that is suitable for products such as saddles, belts, tack, and some shoes. When moistened with water, oak leather can be tooled and embossed with permanent results. Oak tanned leather must be conditioned regularly to protect it from the elements. Oak or vegetable tanning is one of the slowest methods of tanning and therefore one of the most expensive.

Chrome Tanning is effected by soaking the skins in soluble salts of chromium resulting in leather that is extremely resistant to weather and moisture. Most chrome tanned leathers are soft and somewhat stretchy making them suitable for products such as shoes, handbags, clothing, and small leathergoods. Chrome tanning cannot done on a small scale because of its sensitivity to enviromental conditions and the highly poisonous nature of the chemicals. Large investments in technology are required to produce a safe and consistent product using the chrome tanning method. Nevertheless, the vast majority of leather in use today is at least partly tanned by this method because it's fast, efficient, and produces a safe, high quality, and durable all around leather. The process of chrome tanning is relatively fast, and chrome tanned leather consequently is less expensive and more popular.

Oil Tanning with animal oils was a common practice in the 18th and 19th centuries, but wild animals are neither an ethical nor a practical source of tanning chemicals today. Synthetic oils are now used to produce oil tanned leather, usually in conjunction with other methods to give the leather additional resistance to the elements. Oil tanning from scratch can be slow, so most oiled leather is first tanned with the chrome process then "stuffed" with the appropriate oil solution.

Leather Terms

Ounce is a unit of thickness which traditionally referred to the weight of one square foot of a particular leather. Thicker leather weighed more. Differences in tanning processes and resulting densities make this a rather impractical measure, so the term ounce has evolved to mean about 1/64 of an inch. 3 to 4 ounce leather is a commonly used thickness for handbags and upholstery.

Full Grain refers to the topmost layer of a skin. Cowhides, for instance are 1/2 inch or more thick and the skins must be thinned or split to make thinner leather. From each hide, you get one piece of full grain leather and several pieces of "split" leather. Full grain is the most beautiful, most durable, and most expensive leather available. Split leather is most commonly used in suede and in cheaper leather goods.

Full Aniline refers to leather that has been soaked in dye to produce a deep penetrating color. Full aniline has been soaked long enough to produce color through and through. The advantages of aniline leather are its look and feel...the disadvantages are a limited resistance to fading, spotting, and staining. Full aniline leather is not readily cleanable and tends to fade in the sun.

Finished refers to leather that has been colored with a top coat of opaque dressing. Finishing does not allow the grain of the leather to show and is therefore not as beautiful as aniline skins. A full finish hides many of the range markings common in cowhide and allows a good quality product to be made from lower priced skins. Finished leather can usually be cleaned with soap and water with no damage.

Semi-Aniline is probably the most common coloring practice in use today and refers to a combination of aniline soaking and a translucent finish. Properly done, semi-aniline coloring results in a leather with much of the beauty of full-aniline and far greater resistance to fading, spotting, and staining. Most of the leather used in our products is semi-aniline. Most modern tanneries mix dye chemicals and tanning chemicals together to tan and color the hides in one step. A light coating of translucent finish completes the process of semi-aniline leather. We at Highland Leather prefer the advantages of full-grain semi-aniline leather. Semi-aniline leather can be cleaned with saddle soap or athletic shoe soap and dressed with a good quality conditioner that does not contain silicone.

Pricing Leather

Since leather hides are very irregularly shaped, most leather is electronically measured at the tannery and sold by the square foot. The cost per square foot of leather in general varies from less than $2.00 to over $10.00 depending on its appearance and the difficulty of the particular tanning and coloring process.

Appearance of the finished product greatly influences the price of leather. That is, the fewer range markings, the more the leather tends to cost. (Range markings are the assorted scratches, bug bites, brands, and other surface irregularities that are common to every animal's skin.) Very few hides are completely free of range markings, and those that are nearly so tend to be very expensive. Most skins are processed at the tannery to remove some of the range markings.

Another important influence in leather pricing is the complexity of the tanning and coloring process. Some types of leather such as Colombian Vacquetta are tanned and colored in largely automated facilities making the process relatively quick and simple. Others such as the Vintage Leather used in more expensive products are tanned slowly and require extensive hand rubbing and dying to complete the look. Hand rubbing and dying does not improve the strength or durability of the leather but it does give it a more unique appeal; and, of course, takes a good deal more time.

In summary, modern tanneries can produce leather in hundreds of different ways each resulting in a very different look and feel and a variety of prices. We who make and use leather objects must choose our materials carefully to fit the desired end. There is no one type of leather that is entirely suitable for all needs, and all choices are to some degree a compromise.

 

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