Learn More About Leather: Ultimate Leather Guide
We hope this guide will be a useful resource for you to help you to choose between leather types, and generally make you better educated on these things which people have understood for generations and generations, making you really get the most out of your bag.
Mankind has been using leather for as long as he has been eating the animal that made it! The earliest record of leather artifacts dates back to 2200 BC. So there is a long history, and a lot to know.
By putting together this guide, we hope to open up a little window into this world, so that you may get to understand what goes into making a bag, and take you from being the average customer to something of a leather connoisseur! Not to mention you will know some excellent trivia.
We’ll discover where suede comes from, and even see why phrases like ‘genuine leather’ in product descriptions is a little bit misleading.
Without further ado, let’s begin. Cominciamo!
Vegetable Tanned Leather
You will see this phrase a lot, so it’s the best place to start.
Vegetable tanned leather is not a type of leather, but this just describes the process that the leather goes through.
It is a very important process, and is environmentally sound. This is good news for family producers, like ours, who live and work in beautiful regions, such as Tuscany.
"Vegetable-tanned leather absorbs the traces of our life, it matures without ruining.
The natural ageing does not compromise its resistance.
It reveals the signs of time and use as the most personal expression of naturalness and truth." - The Genuine Italian Vegetable Tanned Leather Consortium*
First- what is leather tanning?
Tanning is basically a step towards the end of a very long process in preparing a raw hide from an animal to become leather which can be used in manufacture. Parts of the process include soaking the hides for a couple of days in saltwater, before a process called ‘liming’ where the hides are soaked in a lime solution to remove all unwanted grease and bacteria.
Tanning comes later. This is the process of preserving the hides. Without tanning, they would rot and would never be able to come into contact with water.
These days, chromium tanning is commonplace. It’s a modern sounding term because it’s a modern process; quick and cost effective. This involves soaking the hides in baths containing acidic salts until they are ready for the next step, chrome tanning.
The bath includes chromium tanning agents and the acidity of the bath is decreased until the surface of the hides starts absorbing the chromium agents, which ‘seals’ the skin and protects it.
Cheap, and quick it may be, but it’s not the best way, nor is it environmentally-friendly.
Here at Made in Tuscany, we prefer Vegetable Tanning.
So what is vegetable tanning?
We use this exclusively for our bags. The vegetable tanning process for leather is an age-old tradition. It requires far more time, and far more skill; but this more than pays off for a higher quality product. It is also the most environmentally sound process.
Vegetable tanning dates back thousands of years and relies on an extended and complex process of soaking animal hides in vegetable tannins.
According to “Eco- Friendly Manufacturing: Using Vegetable Tanned Leather” by Makersrow.com, vegetable tanning uses plant extracts to naturally create leathers with a varying range of texture, temper, strength, and softness.”
The process is implemented by skilled craftsmen who understand the value of creating a piece that will last a lifetime. In leaning toward eco-friendly processes, vegetable tanning leads the way.
Vegetable tanning of leather does not involve harmful chemicals that are required for chrome tanning. This means that the tanning process does not involve using toxic metals, so it is healthier for the craftsman and eventually the leather is bio-degradable. However, due to its high durability and strength, vegetable tanned leather is far superior to most synthetic materials and lasts for a lifetime…or two.
This form of natural tanning yields unique products every time. Each rich and warm-toned leather piece looks natural and sometimes irregular, which is a sought-after quality for those desiring one-of-a-kind pieces. With use, vegetable tanned leather changes, deepening in its patina and softening in its feel. Therefore your bag is designed, and built, to last for generations and to look great the whole time.
*The quality of Tuscan vegetable-tanned leather is the result of a long-lasting expertise and it’s closely connected to the lifestyle and culture of its production area. The Consortium (Consorzio Verra Pelle) acts as guarantor and ambassador of this Tuscan excellence throughout the world, an undertaking it has consolidated with the creation of the quality trademark “Pelle Conciata al Vegetale in Toscana” (Tuscan Vegetable Tanned Leather) and of the quality label guaranteeing quality and origin of leathers produced by its member tanneries.
So that is a little about the process of preparing the leather for use in bags and such.
Let’s now look into the leathers a little further.
This is the main source of leather. Unless otherwise mentioned, you can be certain your bag has been made from cowhide. ‘Leather’ itself is simply defined as material made from animal hide. The second most popular is likely goatskin, which is not used in any of our bags. While kidskin can be used for gloves and apparel, goatskin is used for more heavy duty products, such as rugs. Cowhide is far more suitable for the production of bags.
A cowhide, like a cow, is rather large. It also varies in thickness depending on which part of the cow it is on. Therefore, it’s not all equally suitable for the production of leather goods.
Cowhide is made of two main integrated layers – the corium and the grain. The corium becomes thicker with age, which is why calfskins are thinner, smoother and softer than the hides of older animals. You may find many handbags crafted from calfskin.
Aside from the phrase ‘vegetable tanned’, you are often going to see phrases which relate to the ‘grade’ of a leather. As you may be thinking, this is almost a quality score. The grades are as follows:
- Top grain
- Full grain
- Split leather
- Bonded leather
Think of this list (the first three, anyway- not bonded leather) as going deeper into the hide of the animal. The first two are ‘grain leathers’. Top grain is leather which has been corrected in some way to remove blemishes which are common since it’s the part of the skin in contact with the surroundings the most. It is the outermost part of the hide. Full grain goes deeper into the hide, and is more durable and so more expensive. It usually includes the blemishes for a more authentic appearance.
Among these two grain leathers are three sub-categories: aniline, semi-aniline, and protected. Aniline is the most natural; the leather has been protected, but only in such a way so as not to remove its natural appearance. Of course, this does make them more prone to damage.
Semi-analine leathers are treated with pigments to dye them to conceal blemishes and also to create the kind of finish the artisan is trying to aim for.
Protected leathers have a non-leather coating sprayed or attached to the leather as a protectant, thus diminishing their ‘natural’ look the most.
Split leather is next in the sequence. This is so-called because it is ‘split’ from the upper two ‘layers’. Another name for it is nappa leather. Interestingly, spit leather can have various uses, and this is the part of the leather used to make suede.
Suede is simply split leather, with a textured appearance.
Tuscany Leather TL Bag Suede Shopper:
Similar to suede is nubuck (often used in shoes). While very similar, nubuck leather is a lot more durable than suede. Again, both are worked from split leather.
Split leather is also referred to as ‘genuine leather’ which is very confusing. This is a term used by some marketers to refer this this, lower quality leather. Now you know!
Bonded leather is the lowest grade of leather and is not part of the sequence of going deeper into the hide as we described in the opening paragraph. It is the equivalent of an alloy in metal working. It’s bits of leather combined with manmade materials. It’s very cheap, but falls apart quickly. You will not see this in any of our bags, for sure!