Leather: A Timeless Artifact
Worn for centuries, leather seems to be one of those rare, timeless products that will never go out of style. From leather shoes to priceless leather bags, to the interior of luxury vehicles, we can’t seem to get enough leather, and we can’t seem to have ever gotten enough.
When we say leather is timeless, we mean this almost literally---the earliest finding of leather goods dates back to 1300 B.C. Sometimes hides were greased and smoked, according to Britannica.com, but one way or another ancient civilizations found ways to preserve animal hides for further uses as clothing and other artifacts.
Ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians are all recorded as having fashioned leather sandals and armor for themselves. Eventually, by the middle ages, leather tanners and craftsmen began to trade leather goods on a somewhat larger scale. Soon leather carved its way into the bookbinding industry, as many books were covered and bound by the tough and durable material.
The reputation for excellence that leather has built over the centuries continues today, and people are willing to put down big bucks for genuine leather products.
Gone are the days of small tanning operations. Today, tanneries operate on a large scale. Generally, a tanning factory will buy hides that are delivered without the hair of the animal and dried out (cured to remove the moisture) for preservation. The skins are sorted according to the type of leather they will make.
The most efficient tanning method was developed in the 19th century and is called “chrome tanning.” Chrome ions dispel the water that is left over in the hide and bonds to collagens. The whole process can take less than a day. Once tanned this way, the hide is heat-resistant and water-resistant.
The other tanning method is called “vegetable tanning.” In this method, a natural chemical found in plants called “tannins” is used to bind the collagens in the hide similarly to the chrome tanning method. This binding process causes the leather to become water-resistant and flexible. The hides are stretched and immersed for weeks in a tannin solution. Still, vegetable-tanned leather is usually not as soft as chrome-tanned leather, so this is the leather used mostly for accessories like belts and luggage.
While most leather is made from cowhide, it can also be made using the hides of sheep, goats, pigs, horses, kangaroos, ostriches, deer, and elk, though these make up the vast minority of leathers. Reptilian skins are also used in the fashion industry, such as those of snakes, alligators and crocodiles.
While leather is a notoriously long-lasting and tough material, there are rules of thumb when it comes to leather. For instance, long exposure in high-humidity areas without proper care like polishing can cause certain leathers to discolor or even to disintegrate. Exposure to certain chemicals can also have detrimental effects on leather products. However, as long as your leather items are kept in your house or in some other neutral, dry place when not in use, they should be a statement piece that can be used for years to come.