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Design & Style

Fabric Guide: Learn About Leather

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 4 min read

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From leather jackets to high heels, leather has secured its place as a fixture in the fashion industry, but what makes this quality, durable fabric so popular? Made from animal hides and skins, leather has been used for a variety of items for more than 7,000 years, and it is still a popular textile today.

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What Is Leather?

Leather is any fabric that is made from animal hides or skins. Different leathers result from different types of animals and different treatment techniques. While cowhide is the most popular type of animal skin used for leather, comprising about 65 percent of all leather produced, almost any animal can be made into leather, from crocodiles to pigs to stingrays. Leather is a durable, wrinkle-resistant fabric, and it can take on many different looks and feels based on the type of animal, grade, and treatment. The history of leather dates back more than 7,000 years.

How Is Leather Made?

Leather is made by tanning and treating a raw animal hide, or rawhide. The tanning process makes the leather durable and sustainable, as the tanning agents help balance the proteins in the skin so that it can be used in various ways. Raw leather can become stiff and dry, but tanned leather can remain supple and strong for a long time.

There are several different types of animals and tanning processes that can be used in the leather-making process. Generally, leather production involves three stages: preparing, tanning, and crusting.

  1. First, the piece of leather is prepared for the tanning process. The hair needs to be removed from the hide, and some leathers are soaked and bleached.
  2. Then the leather is tanned. This process involves treating the hides with various tanning agents, whether chrome salts or vegetable oils to create a supple piece of leather.
  3. Finally, the leather goes through a crusting process, which softens and dries the leather piece and gets it ready for its final use, whether it’s going to be dyed or sanded.
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Vegetable-Tanned vs. Chrome-Tanned Leather: What’s the Difference?

Leather can be treated and tanned in several ways, though two popular tanning methods are the most common.

  • Vegetable-tanned leather. Created by the Egyptians and the Hebrews in 400 B.C., vegetable tanning is one of the first methods developed for tanning leather. The process uses vegetable matter, like tree bark, to create a light brown taupe color. However, the final color can depend on the type of animal and the types of materials used. Vegetable tanning leads to a very supple leather.
  • Chrome-tanned leather. Chrome tanning is named for the chromium salts used in the tanning process. This is one of the most popular ways to tan leather, as the process takes about one day and the end result doesn’t discolor as much as vegetable tanned leather.

What Is Leather Used For?

There are many uses for leather goods and leather products include clothing, and home decor.

  • Clothing: Leather is used frequently for clothing items like leather jackets, leather pants, leather dresses, leather blouses, and more.
  • Shoes: Since leather is a durable and attractive fabric, leather shoes are a popular item. Leather is used to make a variety of footwear, from boots to loafers to high heels.
  • Furniture: Leather is a popular upholstery material for couches, chairs. Car seats are often also upholstered in leather, and a leather interior is often standard in luxury vehicles.
  • Bookbinding: Leather is a popular material for binding hardcover books and is used for some book covers. Most leather used for bookbinding is vegetable-tanned, as this makes the leather soft, supple, and easily embossed with information on the book’s spine.

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8 Different Types of Leather

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Top grain leather is the thickest and most durable type of leather because this type of leather includes the outside layer of the hide, which is referred to as the grain. There are a few types of top-grain leather, including full-grain, corrected grain, and nubuck.

  • Full-grain is considered the highest quality leather because it includes all of the grain, which makes it very durable.
  • Corrected-grain leather still includes the top grain, but the grain has been treated or sanded to create a more cohesive appearance and eliminate some of the flaws in the leather.
  • The grain side of nubuck is sanded down to give it a smooth appearance, almost like suede.

Split leather is made from the leftofter leather, called the corium, after the top grain is removed. It is not as strong and durable as top-grain leather, but it tends to be softer and smoother without the top grain. Types of split leather include suede, bi-cast leather, and patent leather.

  • Suede is made from the underside of the animal skin, which has a soft, smooth nap, and it is usually made from younger animals, as older animals’ skin tends to be rougher.
  • Bi-cast leather has a layer of vinyl added to it, which gives it the appearance of full-grain leather, but this makes it stiffer and not as high quality.
  • Patent leather has a lacquered finish added to give it to give it a smooth and shiny appearance.

Other types of leather include:

  • Bonded leather - Bonded leather is made by taking leather scraps and fusing them together to create the appearance of a full sheet of leather.
  • Faux leather - This isn’t a type of real leather because it’s not made from animal skins and is made from synthetic materials instead. It is made from a plastic base and treated to look like leather, though it doesn’t have the same durability and porous nature as real leather. While this type of leather is cruelty-free, it does have some environmental impact from the production of man-made materials.

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