Material Matters is a series providing a quick overview of different materials we find in our clothes, where they come from, their uses, and some quick facts that provide a general understanding of their properties. In this article we will be going over the popular natural fabric:
Washability: Super Low
Environmental impact: Medium-High
A Brief Description
Leather is one of the most historic and culturally engrained materials in the long timeline of human existence. Before man was yielding plant-based material for clothing we used animal furs and leather to protect us from the elements. Leather, or treated animal hide, has been used for shields, footwear, clothing, game equipment, roofing, and more throughout our over 2,000 years wielding the animal-based material. Leather in its simplest form is animal skin, or hide. There are two parts to the hide, Top Grain, which it the surface of the hide and what we most commonly see being used for jackets, shoes, bag, and car seats, and Drop Split, which is the thicker underside of the hide used to make suede, leather shoelaces, rope, whips, or scrapped to make bonded leather.
The leather we wear today is far from the rawhide you see dressing your local Bessie. Leather naturally petrifies and hardens with exposure to sunlight, heat, and water. So if you were to simply take a rawhide off your responsibly sourced “nose-to-tail” farmer and try to wear it, you’d have yourself a stiff board of blanket in short order. Untreated, hide turns stiff and gray which is why a tanning process is necessary. I don’t mean the hide is chilling on a beach chair with a white claw talking about what book it’s reading, it's more specifically a type of chemical treatment that removes the natural water molecules that exist between protein fibers within the hide. The process stops the hide from shrinking and changing color, keeping it flexible and soft over time. There are various tanning methods that have been developed over the years, some for effectiveness, some for lesser environmental impact, and some due to resource constraints. The way people had tanned leather for thousands of years was by applying vegetable-based tannins that naturally exist in tree bark and roots to unpetrified animal skins. Unfortunately, the vegetable tanning process leads to the final product being sensitive to hot water. In the 19th century, Chromium-based tanning was invented which produced leather that was more resistant to water and heat. Since then, chromium tanning has been the most common, and popular way to tan leather due to it’s cheaper cost and effectiveness. However, the rise in the awareness of its environmental impact on the local ecosystems near the tanyards and its effects on the workers that use chromium has led to the resurgence of vegetable tanning and dying.
Things to Consider
Chromium-based tanning has been linked to a slew of medical complications for tanners in places like China, India, and Bangladesh, with many being diagnosed with various types of cancers linked to their work at these tanyards. So when you’re looking for a new leather jacket, be sure to check if the leather has been tanned using the classic vegetable-tanning process. Many of the retailers now treat their leather with new ways to waterproof their leather, so the aforementioned hot water exposure issue is less of a concern. However, these will still need a little more love and care for wear, but your conscious purchase will help tell the clothier gods that be, clothes made immorally won’t be supported by this generation.
Hide Types: Cow, Sheep, Goat, Pig, Horse, Snake, Crocodile, Lizard, etc.
Cow-based leather, as expected, is the most common form of leather you’ll find in the retail market, making up about 65% of industry sales. The next most common are sheep, goat, and pig, with higher-end retailers using accents of reptilian and ostrich leather.
Grades: Full-Grain, Corrected Grain, Nubuck, Split Leather (suede), Patent, Bonded and Cordovan (Shell)
Full Grain - The best leather you can get. This leather isn’t buffed or sanded, it has minor imperfections and can develop a slight patina over time which is sought after and looks amazing.
Corrected Grain- Fine leather that is buffed and sanded to have a flat, more uniform finish. This is most common in nicer, mass-produced pieces.
Nubuck- A top-grain leather that is sanded in a way to pull up some of the fibers to create a velvet-esque feel. This is essentially the rich man's suede.
Split Leather- The lower layer of the hide, split leather is used to make suede, or is sometimes coated with polyurethane or vinyl to look like top grain layer. It is usually a bit stiffer but cheaper. This was big in the 70’s. You can find it in hippies’ closets and on the girls pretending to be woke at Coachella.
Patent- A leather finishing process invented in 1818 that is basically a lower-grade leather coated in high-gloss plastic. Common for tuxedo shoes, and flashy women’s belts.
Bonded- Leather scraps that are thrown into a shredder, combined with latex or polyurethane and molded around a fiber mesh, making it look leather-ish. It is much cheaper to produce due to producers not needing a “good” piece of leather to make it. Likely what you'll be getting in any item priced at a point that is “too good to be true.”
Cordovan(Shell)- Leather made from a part of the hide only found in horses called the shell, it is a harder material that is usually maroon in color and is almost exclusively used in dress shoes.
The common uses of leather include: Outer-layer clothing like jackets and pants, belts, shoes, automobile seats, bags, purses, and furniture.
General Tip: Many leather companies say you should keep your leather away from high heat, lots of sunlight, and getting drenched in water if you can. If you can’t keep it away from life itself (who can?), the best way to take care of your leather is to treat it with a moisturizing cream or oil once every 9 months. Hydrating your leather with an oil-based product will keep it water resistant and stop it from cracking. This process needs to be done more frequently if you wear your leather in rain, harsh weather, have been out in the sun for extended periods of time, or live in a super dry climate. As mentioned, leather is a treated hide, aka skin, you lotion your skin when it gets dry, leather care goes by the same rules. This, however, does not apply to suede, never use a moisturizer on suede, suede simply needs to be brushed and/or wiped down. Never wash it in a washer, never dry it in a dryer. Cleaning leather goods is definitely a manual process, so be prepared!