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What is Leather Fabric: Properties, How its Made and Where

by Boris Hodakel  • November 25, 2020 • 8 min read

Fabric name Leather
Fabric also known as Hide, skin
Fabric composition Tanned animal skins
Fabric breathability Low
Moisture-wicking abilities Low
Heat retention abilities High
Stretchability (give) Low
Prone to pilling/bubbling Low
Country where fabric was first produced Unknown - prehistoric origins
Biggest exporting/producing country today Italy (by value) or China (by volume)
Recommended washing temperatures Hand wash cold
Commonly used in Jackets, coats, wallets, belts, bags, gloves, shoes, book bindings, upholstery, automobile seats, saddles, luggage, sporting goods

What is leather fabric?

Leather is a natural fabric made using tanned animal skin. Believed to be the first fabric crafted with human hands, leather has evolved significantly over the millennia. Leather remains, however, one of the most desirable textile products due to its durability, water-resistance, insulative properties, and luxurious softness. Available in many different styles, grades, and colors, leather is one of the most diversified natural textiles.

History of leather

The exact historical origins of leather making are unknown. Human beings have clothed themselves in animal skins for at least 400,000 years, but these fur-covered and untreated skins bore little resemblance to today’s carefully cleaned and tanned leather textiles.

It appears that the earliest treated leather products emerged around 5000 BC, and artisans produced these primitive forms of leather by drying skins in the sun, softening them using animal fat, and salting and smoking them for preservation. It wasn’t until around 400 BC that the Egyptians determined how to tan leather with tannins derived from vegetables. Tannins are natural astringent compounds that prevent the disintegration of collagen in animal hides.

With the collapse of the Roman Empire, which had served as the ancient world’s leather epicenter, the art of leather making was preserved in Arabia. By the Late Middle Ages, Arab leather workers had become so renowned for their craft that to this day, certain types of leather remain named after Arab leather capitals such as Morocco and Cordoba, Spain (which was under Arab rule for multiple centuries).

As the Renaissance dawned, Europe regained its status as a center of industry and commerce, and throughout the 17th and 18th century, Italy established itself as an epicenter of leathercraft. In addition to gaining popularity as an apparel textile, leather also became an in-demand material for light armor during the war-torn Renaissance period.

During the Enlightenment period, use of leather in apparel and accessories maintained steady popularity, and this textile also became a common book binding material. The Industrial Revolution saw the dawn of automated leather-making machines, and by the end of the 19th century, leather manufacturers developed the first mineral tanning methods using chromium, which has since become the primary tanning substance in use today.

Leather today

Leather remains a remarkably popular textile around the world. Especially in populous, developing nations like India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, leather is one of the primary materials for shoes, bags, and other everyday items. Modern leather varies widely in grade, however, and leather textiles produced in India, China, and elsewhere are not commonly held in high regard.

Instead, today’s high-quality leather epicenter is Italy, which has remained the world’s premier maker of fine leather for more than 500 years. People from every nation go out of their way to buy genuine Italian leather goods, and the most recognizable designer brands, including Gucci and Coach, almost exclusively use Italian-made leather.

The modern era has seen the dawn of some of the worst-quality leather, including recycled or “bonded” leather goods made in third-world countries, and also the finest leather goods made in history, including genuine Italian top-grain leather. While leather has lost some degree of popularity in recent decades due to animal rights concerns, it remains common knowledge that there is simply no substitute for artisan-crafted leather goods.

How is leather fabric made?

Leather fabric is composed of specially treated animal skins. The leather-making process has three major stages: tanning preparation, tanning, and post-tanning processing.

Tanning preparation

Before it’s possible to tan leather, a removed animal hide must first be fleshed, which is the process of removing flesh and film from the back of the hide. Next, the hide is stretched, and it is subjected to a dehydrating process involving air drying, salting, or pickling. This step is necessary since animal hides will begin to decompose rapidly after being removed from the animal.

Tanning

After arriving at a tannery, leather manufacturers soak hides in a mixture of lime and water to loosen hair and other undesired tissue. Next, a machine removes these substances. Leather manufacturers then wash the hides to remove any lime residue, and the hides are bated, which is a color-boosting process that removes non-fibrous protein. Once leather manufacturers have pickled the hides as a final softening process, they are ready to be tanned.

The word “tanning” comes from tannin (tannic acid), which refers to a type of chemical found in the roots, bark, seeds, and a variety of other parts of many different plant species. These days, however, most leather manufacturers use mineral tanning instead of vegetable tanning, which involves a specific type of chromium called chromium III sulfate.

Vegetable tanning can take weeks or months to complete, but mineral tanning usually only takes less than a single day. A variety of different tanning methods exist, but most involve soaking hides in a tanning solution.

Post-tanning processing

Once the tanning process is complete, hides are thoroughly dried, and they are dyed using one of a number of different dyeing methods. Next, leather manufacturers apply oils or greases to the surface of the hides to make the resulting leather softer and more water-resistant.

Leather manufacturers then dry the nearly-finished leather to around 15% moisture and subsequently raise or “recondition” the leather to around 20% moisture. After a final stretching, the finished leather is coated one last time to make it resistant to abrasion and the elements. The leather is now ready to be made into a wide array of different consumer goods.

How is leather fabric used?

Leather is one of the most versatile types of fabric. Renowned for its durability and insulative properties, leather is commonly used to make products in three distinct categories:

Apparel

While leather can be uncomfortable when worn directly against the skin, this fabric is frequently used to make outerwear such as jackets and coats. In some cases, textile manufacturers may also use leather to make pants, shirts, or lingerie, but these applications are less common. Leather is also a popular material for boots and shoes.

Accessories

Leather is one of the most popular materials for purses and handbags. Suitcases and other forms of luggage also frequently feature leather, and this material is frequently used to make briefcases. It is considered traditional to make belts and wallets using genuine leather.

Homewares

Next to cotton, polyester, and other conventional upholstery materials, leather is one of the most common substances used to upholster couches, chairs, and even automobile seats. Less commonly, homewares manufacturers might use leather to fashion throw pillows, rugs, or wall hangings. While rare in modern times, bookbinders may also bind books using leather.

Where is leather fabric produced?

China produces the most leather by sheer volume, but Chinese leather is more likely to be low-quality, so it does not fetch very high prices. Italy is the largest exporter of leather goods by value, and in some cases, top-grain Italian leather can fetch prices more than 10 times higher than reasonably high-quality Chinese leather. Other major leather exporters include Brazil, India, and Russia.

How much does leather fabric cost?

The price of leather fabric varies considerably depending on the grade and the way it was manufactured. Top-grain Italian leather, for instance, can be remarkably expensive while reconstituted Chinese leather might be similar in price to other natural fabrics like wool or cotton.

What different types of leather fabric are there?

There are quite a few different types of leather, and each of these variations has unique properties:

1. Genuine leather

Whether it’s top-grain, split, or reconstituted, any leather derived from animal hide is genuine leather. Genuine leather varies widely in terms of quality and durability.

2. Imitation leather

Sometimes called pleather or artificial leather, artificial leather is a textile made with polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or a similar substance. Textile manufacturers design artificial leather to approximate the attributes and benefits of genuine leather.

3. Top-grain leather

Top-grain leather is the outer layer of an animal hide, and it is remarkably strong and durable since it is filled with densely-packed, fine fibers. This type of leather varies in thickness, and there are a few sub-variations of top-grain leather.

4. Full-grain leather

Full-grain leather is a type of top-grain leather that features the full outer layer or “grain” present in natural leather fabric.

5. Corrected grain leather

Textile manufacturers subject this type of top-grain leather to abrasive treatments that correct any flaws in the grain.

6. Nubuck leather

This type of sanded full-grain leather has short, nappy fibers that stick out, resulting in a velvety texture.

7. Split leather

This type of leather is produced from the hide left behind after top-grain leather has been removed. It is lower in quality than top-grain leather, and it is less durable.

8. Patent or bicast leather

These types of split leather feature vinyl or polyurethane coatings that resemble genuine grain. They are usually stiffer than genuine top-grain leather.

9. Suede

Often made with the skin of young animals, suede has a smooth, napped finish.

10. Bonded, recycled, or reconstituted leather

This type of leather features shredded leather fibers that textile manufacturers bond together with latex or polyurethane fibers. Bonded leather is not very durable.

How does leather fabric impact the environment?

The environmental impact of genuine leather is debatable. While this fabric is biodegradable and does not require the use of agrochemicals during production, animal rights activists would contend that the manufacture of leather is unethical, and in some cases, leather production can harm the environment directly.

Most of the world’s leather, for instance, comes from cows. Among the various livestock animals, cows consume more water and feed than practically any other species, and improper grazing patterns can lead to soil degradation and other environmental concerns. In some cases, leather manufacturers do not properly use or dispose of the carcasses of animals they use for leather production, which can result in biohazards.

While tannin, the natural substance ancestrally used to tan hides for leather production, does not harm the environment, its replacement, chromium III sulfate, can cause significant environmental harm. Therefore, leather produced using tannin instead of chromium is more environmentally friendly.

Leather production using chromium III sulfate has led to a number of widely publicized environmental crises. In 2003, for instance, Indian journalists reported that 22 tonnes of chromium solid waste were being dumped per day in open areas surrounding Kanpur, India’s leather production capital. In 2017, the Bangladeshi government shut down over 100 chromium-using tanneries due to the immense pollution they were introducing into Dhaka’s main waterways.

From a strictly environmental perspective, it’s possible to produce leather sustainably, but the question of whether or not leather production is inherently unethical is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. Objectors to genuine leather production can use imitation leather as an alternative, but this synthetic fabric is not biodegradable, and its production commonly releases toxic chemicals into the environment.

Leather fabric certifications available

Neither the USDA nor the European Commission’s organic certification agency certify leather garments, and leather is also not eligible for Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certification. One of the most prominent certifiers of sustainable leather goods is OEKO TEX, which is a major competitor of GOTS. Recycled or bonded leather may be eligible for Global Recycle Standard (GRS) certification.

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About the author:

Boris Hodakel is the founder and CEO of Sewport - an online marketplace connecting brands and manufacturers, former founder of various clothing manufacturing services. He is passionate about e-commerce, marketing and production digitisation. Connect with Boris on LinkedIn.