Leather 101: A Beginners Guide to Leather

Some of the most common questions we get from our customers are often related to the type of leather we use in the making of our weekender bags and travel accessories. 

Because of all the terms used by brands in the market, shopping for leather products can extremely confusing.

We often hear questions like what is vegetable tanned leather? What is chrome- tanned leather? What is genuine leather, or faux leather or, vegan leather? 

Admittedly, this all sounds very confusing and cumbersome.

Many of these terms come from the way leather is made and that's exactly why we created this guide to help you understand what it all means.

Vegetable Tanned LeatherThe leather production process can be categorized into three broad categories: Preparatory Stage, Tanning Stage, and Post-Tanning Stage.

Each stage adds various characteristics that help describe the various types of leather that exist in the market.

THE PREP STAGE: WHAT IS LEATHER MADE OF?

Leather is a raw material made from animal hides and the most popular type is cowhide.

In this initial stage, there are ample pre-treatment components the hides are treated with, the most common being preservation, de-hairing, de-fleshing, and splitting.

Splitting is when leather is cut into two or more horizontal layers. Each of these layers represents a different grade or quality of leather.Leather 101: A Beginners Guide to Leather - Leather Splitting by Leatherpavlat

via Leatherpavlat

Generally speaking, the closer the leather is to the epidermis or the hair, the higher the quality.

This is because collagen bundles in the hide are much tighter near the top, which gives full-grain leather that firm texture.

Full-grain leather is typically recognized as the highest quality of leather in terms of durability and toughness.

Leather 101: Wanderlust Galleria Full-Grain and Top Grain Cowhidevia Wanderlust Galleria

WHAT IS NUBUCK LEATHER?

Nubuck leather is top-grain leather that has been buffed to have short and soft protein fibers that give it a velvety feel.

WHAT IS GENUINE LEATHER?

Genuine leather and suede are the contents of a hide that are split from the grain leather and lay closer to the flesh. Intuitively this makes sense since suede is most commonly referred to as the backside of the leather. Less dense collagen bundles are what give suede its soft texture. Suede is often referred to as Nappa leather, which is a distinction made due to the nappy texture of suede itself.

THE TANNING STAGE: HOW IS LEATHER MADE? 

The tanning process is much like the process of taking raw grapes and fermenting them to become wine. The process is designed to change the molecular compound of collagen, the protein found in the skin. Without tanning, a skin would putrefy and degrade due to the exposure to liquid in the hide itself. Essentially, tanning is designed to draw this liquid out of the skin.

Leather 101: A Beginners Guide to Leather - Leather Tanning

via Frederico Gutierrez & Vince Gx

There are various tanning methods that can be used, however, the most common are Vegetable Tanned and Chrome Tanned.

vegetable-tanned-and-chrome-tanned-leather

WHAT IS CHROME TANNING?

Engineered 19th century, chrome tanning is the modern method of tanning using a heavy metal chromium sulfate. These treatments are typically completed by placing the hides in large spinning drums where a tanning liquid is absorbed by the hide. Using this method, the tanning process normally takes only one day, however, the trade-off is the negative impact this method has on the environment due to the metallic nature of the chromium chemical and acids used in the liquid.

WHAT IS VEGETABLE TANNING?

Vegetable Tanning is an ancient, more eco-friendly process that uses oils from vegetation, like bark, to treat the leather hides.

This method is a traditional craft dating back thousands of years. It is a lengthier and more costly way of tanning and thus less than 10% of the world’s leather is vegetable tanned. It takes nearly 70 days to properly tan a hide using the veg tan process.

It is far more labor-intensive taking up to three months to complete, hence the higher price tag on any goods made using Vegetable Tanned Leather.

Vegetable-tanned leather is also friendlier to the environment and is also biodegradable.

THE POST-TANNING STAGE: HOW IS LEATHER FINISHED?

Once the tanning process is complete, leather hides are ready to be coloured and finished.

Tanned hides are tumbled in large drums to ensure dyes are evenly distributed. 

Red Wing Heritage Leather Tanning Drums

via Redwingheritage

The two types of dyes most commonly used are Aniline and Semi-Aniline.

Aniline dye is a water-based solution with no added pigments or oils.

This method is friendlier to the environment and offers a true reveal of the hide's natural characteristics and markings.

Leather coloured with aniline dye offers a softer finish with a more natural leather feel and smell.

You will notice if you run your fingernail over this leather that a mark will instantly appear, which can be buffed out just as easily with your finger or a damp cloth.

Semi-Aniline dyes include oils and pigments which results in a more firm dense finish to the hide.

pure-aniline-and-semi-aniline

Once the leather hides are dyed, they can be conditioned with fats and oils to stuff and fill the gaps the hides may still have.

Certain leathers like bridle leather are stuffed with hot waxes and oils on both sides of the hide to yield its durability and stiffness.

Leather 101: Leather Guide

via Shutterstock

The leathers are then hang dried and finished with a protective coating to give it a smooth texture. 

Leather 101: Leather Hides

 via Honorkennedy

Leather is a cornerstone at Monte & Coe and we take pride in being fully transparent with the materials we are using. We want our customers to know we are using the best and most eco-friendly materials on the market. We also want our customers to be informed of the process behind handcrafting a Monte & Coe weekender bag.

Monte and Coe Collection






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