What is Leather? Origin, production and uses

A noble material for clothing, leather goods and furnishings, leather is as much criticized as it is appreciated. Find out everything you need to know on the subject.

  What'est-ce que le cuir ? Origine, production et utilisations

Handbags, shoes, car seats, book bindings... Leather is everywhere. But what do we know about this material of animal origin used since the dawn of time? Summary.

What is Leather?

Leather is an animal skin made rot-proof by the tanning process which preserves it. The most common types of leather are prepared from cattle hides (cow or calf for example), of horses , of sheep (goats, lambs, etc.) and of pork (especially used to make large leather jackets or shoes, etc.). There are also leathers of exotic animals such as ostrich, reptiles (crocodile, lizard) or fish such as stingray. In recent years, vegetable matter, which some call vegetable leather, organic leathers or eco-leathers , are appearing on the market of the textile industry. But by definition, it cannot be 'leather' strictly speaking since these materials are not of animal origin. There are also imitations called imitations such as plastic-based leatherette or latex of plant origin.

The Masure tannery in Belgium, specialist in vegetable tanning

How is leather produced?

It all starts with the breeding and then the slaughter of the animals. These are often used in the food industry, which transforms them into meat, as well as in the leather industry. In fact, typically, the animal's skin is then sold by slaughterhouses to wholesalers and rawhide traders who resell it to tanners. The tanning process can then begin. The fresh skins will be salted in order to be preserved with the aim of eliminating water from the tissues and slowing down their action of putrefaction. Once the hide has arrived at the tannery, it undergoes river work which is a succession of five operations: quenching to clean it, depilation for chemical removal of the hair, fleshing to remove the subcutaneous tissue, candiing to soften it and finally pickling to acidify it and prepare it to receive the tanning.

Tanning is an operation that consists of transforming the skin into leather using tannins, which can be substances of different natures (vegetable, mineral such as chromium III salts, combined) and which make it possible to go from a putrescible skin, to a rot-proof material, resistant to hot water and not very hydrated. Finally, the leather acquires specific properties thanks to several finishing methods.

A leather handbag during Men's Spring/Summer 2023 Fashion Week in Paris

What can you do with leather?

At the end of this process, the leather manufacturing and processing industries buy the treated hides to make leather goods, shoes, clothing such as jackets or trousers, furniture such as armchairs, a glove-making or even saddlery-saddle-making… They will come to work it in different ways in order to obtain several kinds of leather such as for example:

  • The full grain leather : it is the dermis, the upper part of the skin, the most noble part.
  • The add nappa : a full-grain leather that has been surface-treated and pigmented to obtain a smooth, supple and unified finish
  • The nubuck : more prestigious than suede, it is the skin of the leather which has been scraped to give it a fluffy and soft appearance.
  • The Sweden or piece : it is the flesh part of the leather which is scraped to make it usable.
  • The split leather : it is the lower part of the skin, the less noble and therefore the less expensive.
  • The vegetable leather : if classic leather is often tanned with chrome, it is also possible to work it using natural materials, which is also longer and more expensive. You should know that vegetable tanning is the oldest method of working leather, used for several centuries.

What are the benefits of leather?

While it may seem expensive and have a few flaws like its lack of impermeability , leather has many advantages and an incredible quality/price ratio. He is extensible , breathable, weather resistant, absorbent , natural, thermoregulatory, comfortable and repairable. But above all, it is timeless. Whether in its natural color varying from beige to camel, black or any other shade, leather never goes out of fashion and remains very elegant.

What are the limits of leather?

Ultra lucrative market for by-products of factory farming, but also industry giving rise to poaching according to its detractors, following the example of vegans and animal protection associations, leather is also decried for the pollution that it generates. Indeed, of huge amounts of water are used in the tanning process. However, leather manufacturers are beginning to adapt their methods to limit this waste and their use of chromium which is discharged with the rinsing waters and is still used for 85% of the world's leather production. Recovery of leather waste such as water and animal fats is also beginning to be implemented.

Source journaldesfemmes.fr