Sometime around 200 years ago one of my ancestors founded his tannery in a little village in the southwest part of Hungary. Those were perfectly different times for leather crafts. I am not talking only about the competitions — which was not insignificant, as even a small village had around 10 bootmakers and several cobblers and those who just practiced shoe repair during the long winter months when they couldn’t do any agricultural work on the fields. In this era, there was one significant difference, compared where we live today: customers. Customers were well educated about leather. Although the truth is that the number of tanning processes was not even close to what we have today.
Let me mention an easy example. As a matter of fact, you can try it. Walk into a shoe store and choose a nice suede looking chukka (not an athletic shoe please… we will get back there later). Ask the sellers if it is nubuck or suede. I bet they can’t tell you. As a brand owner and designer, this is something cannot afford to ignore.
First of all, a little bit of history. Our ancestors started to use shoes, or more like foot-bags, a few ten thousand years ago. That was not a fancy leather. It had one function: protect the foot. Guess what. That is still the number one function of footwear! Anyway, leather was difficult to possess. Those animals pretty viciously wanted to keep their hides. So, after they managed to hunt down a deer, bison or something wilder, the leather was probably a precious good and something worth preserving. Without tanning, the leather will start to smell and rot quickly. It’s not worth putting any effort into a product if it isn’t even going to last a week. Luckily animals came with a little deposit of tanning material — the brain. No one knows how and when they come up with the idea to use the animal’s own brain to preserve the hide. The oils in the brain tissue in the case of a smaller animal is just enough to create a nice soft hide that is perfect for leatherwork. Surprisingly brain tanning survived those ancient times and we also use the modern version of it: oil tanning. Both produce a soft, practically waterproof leather.
There was a significant technology development since the stone age in the tanning industry. The next step was probably using a natural agent as tannins, from bark, seeds etc. This material is meant to be there to protect tree trees from fire, bacteria, insect. The leather made with this method is called vegetable tanned. It has significantly different parameters than the oil tanned ones, although it is difficult to describe them, as there are many versions.
Around the middle of the 19th century, chrome salts were introduced to the tanning industry. At this point, the process was way more complicated than before. From the caveman (probably more like women) “scrape the meat and hair off and smash the brain on it” method, they invented pretty sophisticated ones. The chrome was a big step forward. From the months-long veg tanning, the actual tanning process was only a few hours, and not like the veg-tan leather, the chrome was waterproof, still soft and nowadays very colorful. One characteristic of the chrome tanned leather: the cross section shows a bluish white line in the middle. It is perfectly normal, it doesn’t mean anything bad, quite the opposite. Since the leather is waterproof after the vet blue phase (before they apply the color and other materials), the dying process can’t dye it though. This also means that during the lasting process, this leather must be steamed.
Let’s look at the most important leather types we can use!
Altered Leather — When a leather is not good enough to sell it as it is, they remove the top grain and emboss a new layer on it. For example, a several ten square feet alligator is usually a peaceful cow. It is pretty good for bags, although I wouldn’t choose it for footwear.
Boxcalf, Calf, & Baby Calf — This type of leather should not have major imperfections since the animal never left the box. It is a strong, sturdy, thick leather without major fat wrinkles, not many mosquitoes, gadfly or other insect bites, whip marks, small or bigger scars, branding — just a few from the possible imperfections. They are used for the best quality footwear.
Bridle — Thick leather, basically vegetable tanned. Although, it is basically waterproof thanks to the after-treatment. Amazing leather for bags.
Crust — When you are up to the latest trends and want to create some pretty cool patina, search no more. This is your choice. The crust has not been finished by the tannery, so you can do with it as you wish.
Exotic leathers — Many exotic kinds of leather must have a plastic tag called CITES tag. Don’t buy them without it! Check online which leathers must have it and insist on them.
Alligator — Alligator leather is beautiful, luxurious and expensive. They sell it by centimeter sidewise. You buy alligator when you have your patterns in hand or you’ll spend more that is reasonable.
Caiman — The cheaper version of alligator, still very nice.
Cordovan — Originally this name stood for kidskin, nowadays for the horse, more precisely the butt part. Thick, beautiful and expensive and close to indestructible. Even scratches can be removed and the leather can be restored very perfectly. A good shoe, made from an alligator is a long term investment.
Snake — When we say snake, it is mostly Python. It is not legal everywhere. So again, do your homework before you order (especially in California). Snake is relatively thin, so you might need to interface it.
Stingray — Probably one of the best-looking leathers in this category, although surely the most challenging to work with. The little pebbles on the hide are as strong as teeth, so they mean quite a challenge for the sewing machine needles. There is a trick to work with it though.
Nubuck & Suede — The difference is easy to spot. The nubuck is practically a full grain hide, where the grain is buffed up, since the suede is a split (the bottom layer), it gets dirty easier, not very waterproof and the worst thing for manufacturing: the skiving will practically damage the hide.
Patent Leather — The method was invented in 1818, it practically means that the leather is covered with a plastic layer – the quality can be actually really mixed, sometimes tanneries apply this coating on the worst quality split hides.
Upholstery Leather — This is a pretty poor idea for shoes as it has been made for furniture. It usually comes in full hides, because of the special demands of the industry. (footwear cow hides – except calf – usually come in half hides, separated at the spine).
Vegetable Tanned Hides — There is leather purely tanned with this method or combined with other tanning technologies. The most common place you can find this is shoe soles and heels. For other shoe parts of fashion accessories, the usage is limited as any little liquid can leave a stain on the surface.
And now a few problems. Unfortunately, the reality is that not all leathers are perfect. There are insignificant, huge problems and ones that might cost you a fortune.
Bites — They are not beautiful, although with some leather (Reindeer), part of the characteristics.
Crocodile — This is probably the worst leather because the color washes out. If it goes to production overlooked, there will be some really upset customers, I guarantee you. There is nothing you can do about this, just try to avoid this leather. You can test it easily by rubbing a piece of wet, white cloth on the hide, if it comes off colored do not buy it. Seriously.
Fat Wrinkle — You can see a lot of fat wrinkles on older animals, vegetable tan hides. It is kind of normal, although you might not want to use it for a vamp.
Branding — You can find it on vegetable tanned hides – some makers skip it, some embrace these imperfections.
To be honest this was hardly scratching the surface. To be sure you buy the right leather, the help of a technical expert or a consultant will come very handy.