Now that we’ve explained the basics of the leather process, it’s time to delve into where the hides come from. The explosion of industrial agriculture across the globe over the last century or two has made it extremely easy to acquire skins to tan. But, before technological advancements made raising livestock more feasible, leather was still being made.
Where did skins come from historically?
So, where did all of those skins come from? Well, animal husbandry has been around for thousands of years, so it makes sense that people would use the hides from animals they raised for meat, dairy, or fiber. But, even before humans were herding and raising livestock purposefully, they still had access to hides through animals they hunted.
Tests done on leather found in old burial mounds or with mummified remains have shown quite a variety of animals being used. Everything from squirrels, rabbits, and beavers to goat, deer, cow, camels, and even alpacas have been used by ancient peoples. And while many of these were already domesticated, just as many were wild.
This tendency to use every bit of an animal was extremely common among early peoples. From North and South America to Europe, Africa, and Asia, people used whatever native animals they could for food, tools, and shelter. However, as populations grew, domesticated animals became more common and widespread, giving easier access to fewer types of animal hides.
Where do hides come from now?
The growth and development of modern tanning has been greatly influenced by the spread of agriculture and livestock. As civilizations expanded, they brought with them tendencies to grow specific crops and raise particular types or breeds of animal.
Today, cows have become the dominant herd animal across the globe, due in large part to their hardiness and ability to provide both meat and dairy in large quantities. To a lesser extent, pigs, goat, and sheep have also spread around the planet, offering some variety to tanners depending on local climate and flora.
Compared to solely using native animals with whatever tanning materials could be found locally, access to vast numbers of fewer types of animal hides and the ability to ship materials around the world have given rise to tanning methods that can produce a lot of leather as quickly and inexpensively as possible. The current global leather industry now depends almost entirely on cow hides obtained from industrial feed lots and dairy farms.
However, tanneries that work with other animal types and sources still exist. While the hides might be generated by the same meat and dairy industry, they often come from smaller local farms, are brought in by hunters, or die naturally. These smaller tanneries survive producing niche leathers for particular applications, and thus spend a larger amount of time working with individual farms, hide dealers, and abattoirs procuring skins from goats, sheep, deer, elk, pig, and other non-cow hides.
Why do they still use different types of hides?
If there’s such easy access to cowhides, why are other hides still being used? Since modern finishing techniques allow for cow leather to be colored, embossed, or patterned to look like nearly any other type of leather imaginable, wouldn’t it be easier to just produce cow hide so that it takes on any look desired?
While tweaking tannages does allow for a large amount of variability in the body and feel of leather, it’s not the only component that affects the end product. Every animal has its own unique traits and characteristics, many of which are difficult, if not impossible, to recreate accurately with something like finishing. From natural oils or fiber structures that give a hide a particular softness or roundness, to grain patterns or character that are different on every hide, there are aspects of nearly every type of animal skin that are still perfectly suited to certain applications.
In most cases, animal skins would be created as byproducts of other industries regardless of them being used to produce leather. However, for some tanneries, turning these otherwise discarded skins into specialty leather suitable for a variety of niches and applications is a matter of pride; creating durable, long-lasting leathers from a plethora of animal types both continues the longstanding tradition of tanning and yields a unique material usable by everyone from saddle and boot makers to bookbinders, upholsterers, designers, and everyone in between.
Missed the first post from this series? Read it Here