WHERE DID LEATHER COME FROM?
Palaeolithic cave paintings in Lerida, Spain, depict leather clothing. The frozen body of a Bronze Age hunter, found in the Alps, was wearing shoes made from bear and deer skin. Ever since humans first slaughtered animals for their meat, they have been using their skins. Early humans must have wrapped themselves in the still warm hides following a kill. Clothing, shelters and footwear must have been among the first ways in which animal hides were used. Uncured hides, however, become stiff at low temperatures and they rot in the heat. Something had to be done to make the hide durable, to transform animal skin into leather.
WHO INVENTED LEATHER?
Over the centuries thousands of human beings gradually discovered ways of preserving animal hide. They noticed that removing traces of flesh from the skin was a necessary first stage, that skins hung in the smoke of a fire lasted longer or that skins left to dry in the sun did not rot. They discovered that salt rubbed into the skin drew out its moisture. That putting green leaves onto a fire had an even more effective curative effect because the vapours produced contained formaldehyde. They must have experimented with rubbing all kinds of substances into their hides, how else did humans discover that the tannin contained in the bark of oak trees is an effective curing agent.
Techniques for tanning are to be found in Assyrian texts of the fifth millennium BC and in the Iliad of Homer. The ancient Egyptians were so sophisticated in their leather craft that they were making gloves. In Roman times leather was used all over the empire. By the 12th Century the basic techniques by which we cure leather today had been established and leather was being used for utility objects such as clothing as well as elaborate luxury goods such as book bindings.
WHERE IS LEATHER MADE TODAY?
The leather industry maintains that leather is a by-product of the meat industry and that without leather production there would be dire environmental consequences. Clearly, the supply of hides and skins depends primarily on the production of meat. Countries where there is substantial meat production tend to produce leather. Thus Brazil, Argentina and the USA are all major producers of leather.
Sometimes there are historical reasons for the industry, Italy has a long tradition of leather craft and remains a major producer of leather goods today. India’s leather industry originated with the arrival of the British Army in the nineteenth century and their demand for boots and saddles and today India continues to be a major exporter of leather goods.
It is however the industrial powerhouse of China which is the world’s biggest producer of leather goods. Footwear is the major export as demand for leather footwear has continued to grow, despite losing market share to athletic style shoes. Use in leather garments has declined but use in furniture and car upholstery continues to increase.