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Understanding Leather: A Beginner’s Guide

Understanding Leather
Written by Julia Eden

A Beginner’s Guide to Leather

I’m not going to lie – I love leather! A good hide is a thing of immense beauty and I would never take it for granted. Leather is a biodegradable, renewable resource with a huge amount of potential applications. But there is a problem: 90% of the world’s leather supply is Chrome-tanned. Perhaps it’s my selfish nature, my desire for all of the world’s leather to be expertly vegetable tanned, but it’s also definitely in everyone’s best interest. So let’s break down what leather actually is, how leather is actually made, and how we can all ensure it’s made better.

Leather is a by-product of the meat industry, which is really not going anywhere.  And, I think it’s always better to use a by-product than to source virgin materials. As long as we eat meat, there will be leather. It is a versatile material with a host of available uses; being organic matter it is fully biodegradable, and it can be produced in both environmentally and worker-friendly ways. It also wears well with age, which is usually a very long time if the piece is well cared for, and can be produced in a range of colors and finishes.

The Big Issue

In order to make leather usable, and to prevent it from rotting, you must prepare it. This basically requires curing, tanning, and finishing. For our purposes, because leather is incredibly complicated to work with, we’ll examine the two major types of tanning: chrome and vegetable.

Beginner's Guide to Leather

Beginner’s Guide to Leather: A vegetable tannery where hides are soaked in large drums for several weeks with leaves, barks,  and branches of specific plants known to be rich in natural tannic acids

Vegetable tanning has been practiced by humans for hundreds of thousands of years. Cavemen, needing to keep warm, may have had a bit of luck one night when they accidentally rubbed some fat into the leftover, inedible animal hide. Finding the result to be soft but strong, techniques were (relatively speaking) quickly adapted and passed down through the generations, constantly being improved as new technologies were discovered. The vegetable tanning methods we have now produce a hide that is hard-wearing, incredibly long-lasting and fully biodegradable.

Then, around 150 or so years ago, chrome tanning methods were discovered. Chrome tanned leather has the benefit of being incredibly soft and resilient when wetted, as well as being able to take dye better. Though the most important aspect is production time – while vegetable tanned leathers will take anywhere from 1-6 months to prepare, their chrome brothers can be completed in a single day.

leather

When leather is tanned using metal chromium, the product is very water resistant, the leather feels soft and can be dyed with a wide variety of colors. The colors also tend to set well and stay vibrant longer.

The problem only happens when one starts to consider the health of the tanners and the planet. The type of chromium used leeches out into local water tables, infecting clean water supplies and the animals that drink from them. The health issues of humans can be easily explained by the fact that chromium(III) sulfate is the “significantly less toxic” cousin of hexavalent chromium, which you may remember as the thing that was killing everyone in Erin Brockovich.

Leather To Look For: Featured Tanneries

I have looked and looked and finally managed to find 3 tanneries in the US all producing ethical leather – which is to say, leather that is sourced from byproducts and produced using limited or no toxic chemicals. Many of the brands that use these hides post it proudly on their websites, but don’t be scared to reach out to your favorite shoe or accessories label about their leather source. Even if a particular company is not using responsible leather sources now, if enough of their customers ask about it, change is likely to happen.

A Look At Horween Leather

Beginner's Guide to Leather

Beginner’s Guide to Leather

For over 100 years, Horween Leather has been providing designers with high-quality, low impact leather. Nick Horween, Vice President of the company since 2008, has a pair of his grandfather’s shoes, made from Horween leather and passed onto him by his grandmother, that he still wears today. Nick says of these shoes: “They are made by Alden, which is one of our oldest and best customers. I wear them often and they look better and better as time goes by.”

In the spirit of transparency, I will point out that one of their more popular styles does use chrome in the tanning process (Chromexcel), as well as a vegetable re-tannage. But, aside from that little wobble, their eco credentials stack up. They only source hides responsibly from by-products of the meat industry in the US, Canada, and Europe, and all hides are tanned in Chicago to the highest standards. In an effort that should be the first on every socially conscious fashionista’s list, they ensure that their leather will last, literally, for lifetimes. Not to mention, the stunning website features a blog to get absolutely immersed in!

A Look At Hermann Oak Leather

Beginner's Guide to Leather

Beginner’s Guide to Leather

In a bold move, by today’s standards, Hermann Oak Leather strives to make the highest-quality leather to the most stringent ethical standards. Their range of styles is extensive, but in a step beyond, they offer most of their exclusively vegetable-tanned hides “naked” which is not only “environmentally friendly, it also leaves the naturally warm brown hues of the leather to show through, like a piece of mahogany wood. Vegetable leather is the most beautiful of all leathers in its natural state.” The website is also incredibly informative, and I would recommend checking out their environmental page, or their infographic breakdown of the tanning process if you want to learn more about leather.

A Look At Wickett-Craig Leather

At over 150 years old, Wickett-Craig Leather is the oldest of the vegetable tanneries, and the ethics instilled so long ago continue today. With an absolute commitment to the environment, they strive to use only natural (read: found in nature) ingredients in their processes, while also creating a hard-wearing hide in a range of styles.

What’s your leather story? Do you have your own pair of shoes or belt or handbag that came from a faraway land or time? Share your story with us by posting on Instagram with the hashtag #socoleather.

About the author

Julia Eden

With a passion born in rivers, Julia Eden has spent the last decade crusading for the environment. Educated in fashion design and English Literature, and skilled in dance, she is dedicated to finding the information needed to live a new and better life. While not quite a Luddite, she would very much like to live in a cave with a wolf and an internet connection.

2 Comments

  • A motivating discussion is definitely worth comment. I do think that you ought to write more on this issue, it may not be a taboo subject but typically people don’t talk about these subjects. To the next! Cheers!!

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