The properties of leather vary considerably depending upon the type and quality of both the skins and the
tanning process. Every piece of leather has individual markings which relate to its origins and add
character to each skin.
Like a fine wine, a good quality leather garment should improve with age. The natural elasticity of each
hide means it is flexible and will stretch and return to its original shape. Leather also has a natural
tendency to repel liquids and resist staining. It's also fire resistant, and emits no toxic fumes, even when
exposed to intense heat.
Relative to virtually all man-made textiles, leather is very strong and has a high resistance level to tears
and punctures. The comfort provided by most leather goods is due in part to leather's ability to combine
breathing and insulating properties. You may have heard... "Leather is hot in summer and cold in winter."
In reality, leather adjusts constantly to its environment. Because it is a natural product, leather "breathes"
freely, maintaining a comfort level in all seasons.
Types of Garment Leather
Cowhide is the most common leather used in the making of garments, furniture and leathergoods.
Cowhide as a category covers a wide spectrum of textures and quality, but generally, it is quite durable,
easy to care for and resistant to water and dirt. Cowhide leather will maintain its integrity, taking on the
shape of the wearer, making it more comfortable with everyday use. This affordable, functional leather
offers fashion, value and endless colours and style.
Lambskin is a very soft, luxurious leather. Its natural lightweight layers give it a distinctive, velvety touch,
which suites form fitting jackets, pants, skirts as well as coats. But don't let its delicate texture
discourage you. With a little extra care, lambskin is very wearable and the ultimate luxury.
Pigskin is by far the most popular and versatile, easily transformed into fashion's most current looks.
When tanned on the outside, it produces smooth napa finish, often used for jackets and accessories.
Tanning on the inside results in a silky suede finish. The natural, lightweight structure of pigskin produces
delicate patterns, textures and silky soft naps, perfect for sportswear, shirts and blazers.
Sheepskin refers to the hide of a sheep used with the wool still attached. Usually, the wool side faces
into the garment or accessory, but it can also be made reversible. The wool can be ironed, which means
straightened to yield a smooth, fur-like appearance, or it can be left naturally curly. Whichever way the
wool is styled, this is the warmest leather available.
Shearling is quite similar in appearance to sheepskin, the term shearling refers to hides from lambs
which are generally much lighter in weight then sheepskin hides and much softer. Although they may be
lighter, shearling coats are just as warm as the heavier sheepskin. They are an elegant alternative to a fur
Glossary of Leather Terms
Leather that is tumbled in vats so the dye is completely absorbed by the skin. There is no other colouring
agents or process, thus the finished leather tends to look and feel more "natural" - the unique markings
and character of each skin are apparent. By way of analogy, this treatment is akin to the "staining" of
wood. Usually, the best quality hides are reserved for this process, as aniline leathers are valued highest
The light application of one colour over another (usually a darker color over a lighter one), to create
Corrected Grain Leather
Leather whose natural surface texture has been altered.
A dyeing process in which leather is immersed in dye and tumbled in a rotating drum, allowing maximum
The application of colour, either by spraying, hand rubbing or immersion.
A process in which design is added to leather by pressure to alter or correct the surface resulting in
uniform imitation grain.
Any post tanning treatment, such as: dyeing, rolling, pressing, spraying, lacquering, antiquing, waxing,
buffing, embossing, glazing, waterproofing, or flame proofing.
The distinctive pore and wrinkle pattern of a hide; may be either natural or embossed.
A term used to describe the softness or feel of leather.
Skin of large animals, usually cattle.
A generic term for all hides and skins which have been tanned and finished.
A term used for leatherized sheepskins.
Aniline leathers on which the surface has been brushed to create a texture similar to that of velvet. It is
often mistaken for suede, but suede is the flesh side of a piece of leather while Nubuc is an effect that is
done to the grain side, making it considerably stronger.
A luster that develops with time and use.
Leather that has been sprayed with a surface colour in addition or instead of the dye process and is
analogous to the "painting" of wood. While generally less appealing to the touch than aniline leather,
pigmented skins are required for applications such as motorcycle leathers where durability is the key
A term describing hides with a minimal amount of scars or blemishes, usually less than 5% of all hides.
Refers to the removal of scars and blemishes from a hide by buffing.
Leathers which are a combination of both pigmented and aniline dyed; a very light pigment is added to
even out the colour and increase the durability. Most garments are made with semi-aniline leathers.
Underlying layers of leather usually used for suedes.
Suede is the underneath portion of a hide after the splitting process. Compared to the durable top grain,
this layer of the hide is much thinner and there for most commonly used for garments and small
leathergoods - and not for furniture.
Treating raw hides to become nonperishable.
A process in which hides are tumbled in a rotating drum to soften the hand or enhance the grain. Hides
selected for furniture are sliced to a uniform thickness on precision machines. Only the outer surface (top
grain) is used. The lower portions or splits are weaker, due to the elongated cell structure. Splits are
subject to stretching and therefore provide an unstable base, which results in cracking of the finishes.
HOW LEATHER IS MADE
The tanning industry is a multi-billion dollar industry with factories throughout the world. While leather has
always been largely a byproduct of the meat industry, today this is a universal fact; the most notable
exceptions being some types of snake skins. The greatest and most valuable advancements in tanning
technology relate to the mitigation of its environmental effects. Today, the vast majority of countries with
tanning industries have stringent environmental regulations to ensure that these technological
advancements are, in fact, employed. While the exact specifications and procedures for tanning vary
considerably, depending on the type of skin and its application, the basic processes are common to all
The Tanning Process
The skins and hides are received at the tannery in a cured form, which means they
have been treated with salt to prevent rot before they leave the meat packing plant.
The hides are then soaked in water to soften them and to remove the remaining salt
solution. The soaking period varies from two to forty eight hours. The next step is
fleshing. Machines equipped with a rubber roller and a shaft to which spiral knives
are attached remove the flesh and tissues from the inner side of the skin. These
knives leave a clean, uniform surface. After fleshing, workers transfer the skin to a department of the
tannery known as the beam house. Here the hair is removed by soaking the hides in a vat with a solution
of lime and sodium sulfate. The hides are milled or kept in motion in the vat for several days.
The next operation involves removing the lime from the skins. After washing with cold water they are
placed in a bating vat which contains an enzyme and a sulfate or chloride. Bating also softens the texture
of the hide during this 3 to 4 hour treatments. At this stage, the hides enter one of two possible
processes of tanning: Vegetable or Chrome tanning. Leathers for shoe soles, heavy cases, harnesses
and most upholstery applications are prepared by vegetable tanning. Many plants and barks contain a
bitter ingredient called tannin. It has the property of combining with proteins to form a compound that will
not rot or decompose easily. In this case, the protein is the hide and after tannin is added, the compound
is leather. The principal sources of tannin are leaves, nuts, bark and woods of hemlock, oak, chestnuts
and various other types of trees.
Chrome tanning is used for tanning the upper leather of shoes, handbags, wallets and garments. Prior to
chrome tanning, the hides must be pickled after the bating step. Pickling involves soaking the hides in a
solution of salt and acid for several hours to achieve a low pH level. This is necessary because the
chrome-tanning agents that are to follow are not soluble otherwise. The pickled skins or hides are then
placed in a tanning drum containing a solution of common salt, soda and acid. The chemical reaction to
the compounds tans the hide and after 5-10 hours, the conversion to leather has been effected.
Dyeing & Finishing
After the leather has been tanned, it is then split and shaved to a
uniform thickness appropriate for the intended product. Dyeing or
colouring is achieved by placing the leather in another drum with a
combination of colouring materials and chemicals to increase their
penetration. This process may take several hours.
Fat liquoring is the last step in the "wet" stage and requires about
one hour. Here the leather is placed in a drum with a variety of oils
and greases. This step and the combinations of oils employed,
determine the pliability of the leather. The leather is then dried to
remove all excess moisture. A number of different methods are
used, each having a different "dehydration" level which influences the
characteristics of the final product. Often the leather is then buffed.
All skins have natural healed scratches or blemishes, which attest
to the genuineness of leather. However, to improve its final
appearance, it is often desirable to lightly sand or buff the grain
surface. If the leather is not buffed, the leather is top or full grain
Finishing involves the application of film-forming materials to provide
abrasion and stain resistance and to enhance colour. Pigments are
also added when a more opaque or vivid colouring effect is required.
However, with smooth or top grain leather, usually only a light,
transparent coating is applied. This is known as aniline dyeing. Of
the two, aniline finished leathers are the finest quality. The final
processing step to influence the appearance and feel of the leather
is called plating. The plating operation is done on a press capable of
exerting up to 300 tons per square inch. The plating smoothes the
surface of the coating materials just applied and firmly affixes them
into the grain. At the same time, the plate may be specially
engraved to emboss a particular pattern on the leather.
The specifications and required
characteristics of the tanned leather is
determined by the end use of product for
which it is intended. Tanneries produce to
order for a wide variety of final goods
manufactures; there is a huge range in the
quality of both materials and workmanship in
leather goods. In 1995, total world leather
production was approximately 7,000,000 metric tons of cowhide;
1,400,000 metric tons of lambskin, shearling, sheepskin; 800,000
metric tons of pigskin and 450,000 metric tons of goatskins. It has
been estimated that more than 2,000,000 people in the world are
employed in the various branches of the leather industry.
Today, the leather tanning industry stands out as perhaps the most
productive byproduct industry in the world. It is hard to imagine the
environmental impact of the additional synthetic product
manufacturing which would be required to replace all of the current
applications for leather, suede and shearling. It is impossible to
imagine how any of these synthetic substitutes could ever match
the esthetic appeal of genuine leather.