Almost any animal skin can be processed to produce leather, even fish skin is used, however 99% of world leather production comes from just four animals: cows 65%, sheep 15%, Pigs 11% and goats 9%. The quality of the leather produced will be affected by the conditions in which the animal was reared, its nutrition, its health, its age are all factors which effect the end-product. In addition, the methods by which the hide has been processed and the quality of those techniques will also have a significant effect on a range of characteristics, such as: appearance, durability, scratch resistance, water resistance, strength, weight and softness.
When choosing quality leather products, it is important that you consider whether this product has been made from good quality leather from an appropriate animal. Leather terminology can be confusing so it’s worth knowing what some of the labels you might come across actually mean. Real Leather or Genuine Leather sounds reassuring, it’s meant to, in fact it’s third grade leather which has been stamped and dyed to resemble Top Grain Leather. It is leather but it lacks the strength and durability of Full Grain Leather, which is acknowledged as the best leather money can buy. Another term to watch out for is Bonded Leather, this is a composite product made from as little as 10% leather. Leather scraps are pulped and then glued onto a fibre or paper backing. It is cheap to buy and has the superficial appearance of leather but it has little strength and its polyurethane coated surface is prone to peeling and cracking.
LEATHER FOR LUGGAGE
Good quality leather luggage will last a lifetime but it is expensive and so before you buy, make sure that you are satisfied that the leather and its fixings are of sufficient quality to cope with the weight and stress that luggage has to endure. Cow hide is the most popular choice for the construction of luggage, not only because of its availability but also because it is one of the heaviest of leathers. Full Grain cow leather is the best choice for luggage because of its strength and durability. Full Grain leather is the top layer of the hide and its composition is different to the lower layers of the hide. Its dense, vertical fibres are what give it its unique durability and its resistance to dirt and water. Full Grain leather retains its natural markings and develops a beautiful patina with use.
If you prefer a more uniform appearance, then you may wish to choose Top Grain cow leather. Confusingly, this is the second layer of hide which has been sanded and stamped to give it an even pattern. It shares the qualities of Full Grain Leather but to a lesser extent. A much rarer, but more luxurious choice is ostrich leather. This is a thick, durable leather which is soft and supple and has an attractive goose bump appearance. If you want even more exotic luggage-ware then crocodile or alligator leather is strong, durable and attractive. It is also very expensive.
LEATHER FOR MOTORCYCLE AND CAR SEATS
Since the nineteen forties low cost car seats have been made from vinyl, but as anyone who has endured a long car journey on a hot day will know, vinyl does not breathe like leather and it is uncomfortable next to the skin. In recent years, there has been an increase in the demand for leather seats in cars. They are a mark of luxury and they’re much more comfortable. Top Grain aniline cow leather is the natural choice because of its strength, softness and durability. Motor cycle seats tend to be made from vinyl but custom made cowhide saddles provide far greater comfort.
LEATHER FOR BRACELETS AND JEWELLERY MAKING
Leather is a beautiful, strong material and it is one which breathes, as a consequence it is widely used in necklaces and bracelets. The leather used in jewellery making is chosen for its softness and so calf and lamb are popular choices, either as suede or as nappa, a generic term for soft aniline leather. Leather cord used for stringing necklaces and bracelets can be flat, round or braided, known as ‘bola cord’. Regaliz, which is Spanish for licorice, is a thick, often multi-coloured cord. Most cords are printed with a particular animal pattern but unusual skins such as stingray and salmon are also used.
LEATHER FOR HOLSTERS
The construction of holsters requires a high level of craftsmanship. The leather from the shoulder of the cow is the preferred choice because this is the area where the leather is at its most uniform. The leather is soaked in water and other wetting agents and the gun is inserted into the wet holster. It is then pressed and rubbed with oils so that the shape of the gun is preserved. Small holsters require a light leather whilst heavy holsters use thick leather on the outside and thin on the inside.
LEATHER FOR KNIFE SHEATHS
The crafting of a knife sheath is similar to that of a holster: the leather is wet formed to retain the shape of the knife. Cow hide is the obvious choice but vegetable tanned leather is preferred because it will not cause corrosion to the knife. Leather for Upholstery and sewing Leather furniture accounts for 14% of all leather goods and the demand is continuing to grow. The same basic rules apply as for luggage-ware. If you want something that is going to last choose Full Grain or Top Grain cow leather. The stitching of leather is obviously a very important element in its durability. All but the most expensive luxury goods will be machine stitched in a factory, check to ensure the quality of the stitching and whether inferior types of leather have been stitched into hidden areas of the upholstery.
LEATHER FOR BELTS
Belts are one of the few leather goods in which the whole thickness of the hide is used. Most belts are made from cowhide but pig skin and lamb skin are also used. The leather is cut across the grain in order to give it maximum rigidity. A paper or fibre backing tells you that the belt is ‘real leather’ or ‘bonded leather’ and that it will lack the strength and durability of Full Grain or Top Grain.
LEATHER FOR WALLETS
You’ll find wallets made in every grade of leather from faux through to Full Grain. A good wallet should be supple, light and strong and the most popular choice is calf’s skin, although if you look hard enough and you’re prepared to pay, you’ll find a whole range of exotic leather wallets from less familiar animals.