Human beings have been using leather since Palaeolithic times. Skins which protected animals have been used down through the centuries to provide humans with protection from the weather in the form of a second skin. It is hard to imagine how we could have survived freezing winter conditions without the protection of animal hides. As human civilization became more sophisticated so did the techniques for the preparation of leather and more and more uses were found for this incredibly versatile material. Today, less than one per cent of leather production comes from animals reared exclusively for their hides. Leather production is a by-product of the meat industry and is centred on the hides from four species of animal: cows 65%, sheep 15%, pigs 11% and goats 9%. Without the processing of animal hides into leather there would be serious environmental consequences resulting from the disposal of animal hide.
WHY LEATHER IS USED FOR SHOES
Cow hide shoes with leather laces were found in a cave in Armenia which date back five thousand, five hundred years. The characteristics of leather make it particularly suitable for the construction of footwear. It can be cut and shaped with comparative ease, it is light, strong and supple and most importantly, it breathes. Despite developments in synthetic materials and the subsequent popularity of sports shoes, leather shoes remain popular because of their comfort and durability. Shoe production accounts for 52% of the world leather goods market, which produces an enormous variety of footwear ranging from the flimsiest of sandals through to the most substantial of boots. Cheaper products are made from ‘bonded leather’ or ‘genuine leather’ whilst more expensive items use Full Grain or Top Grain leather. Cow hide is the most common choice of shoe leather but the fashion market also uses more exotic leathers such as ostrich or crocodile. Suede is a popular form of shoe leather because of its softness and comfort. Nubuck offers the same level of comfort but is a stronger and more durable leather.
WHY LEATHER IS USED FOR GLOVES
The ancient Egyptians made leather gloves, though one wonders what use they had for them. Gloves have been worn both as a protection against the elements and as a sign of social standing, a signal that the person wearing them was too sophisticated to risk contamination from the world of ordinary people. Leather gloves have served both functions. Poor people used the skins of rabbits or deer to create warm winter gloves, leaving the skin on the inside for additional warmth, whilst the rich demonstrated their wealth and taste by wearing finely made gloves of the softest and thinnest leather. Those two functions of the glove, utility and fashion, remain with us today, typified by the sheepskin, fur lined glove and the sleek, fitted calf skin glove.
WHY LEATHER IS USED FOR BASEBALL GLOVES
A catcher’s mitt is going to take a lot of punishment and there is no other material that is as strong, flexible and comfortable as leather. The best gloves are made from four main types of leather. Full Grain is strong and durable but it does take a long time to break in. Cow Hide is much easier to break in but it lacks Full Grain’s durability. Kip Leather, a luxury cowhide, is strong, light and easy in break in, but it is very expensive. Premium Steer Hide is more durable than Cow Hide but it’s also stiff and heavy.
WHY LEATHER IS USED FOR JACKETS
Leather has been used for jackets for centuries: it is windproof, waterproof and extremely durable. The black leather motorcycle jacket has since the nineteen forties become an iconic garment which signifies rebellion. The Nicholas Cage character in ‘Wild at Heart’ says of his leather jacket: ‘This is a snakeskin jacket. And for me it’s a symbol of my individuality and my belief…in personal freedom’.
WHY LEATHER IS USED FOR FURNITURE
The popularity of leather furniture is continuing to grow and it now accounts for 14% of the world trade in leather goods. The qualities of leather that make it particularly suitable for furniture are that it is supple, strong and because it is a natural material which breathes, it is very comfortable. It is a conspicuous luxury possession: a good quality piece of leather furniture improves with age and will last a lifetime.
WHY LEATHER IS USED FOR CAR SEATS
In order to reduce costs, post war car manufacturers used vinyl for car interiors. It had the superficial appearance of leather and was easy to maintain. Vinyl, however, does not breathe, it sticks to bare skin and in hot conditions it causes the person in contact with it to perspire. Leather is a much more comfortable and a much more durable material to use for car seating. Recent years have seen an increase in the demand for the type of leather car seats which were once only found in the top end of the luxury car market.