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How leather is made: A guide from start to finish

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A pair of black leather shoes on black background

Since the beginning of history, leather has been an integral part of the well-dressed wardrobe. One might call it the world’s most ancient fashion statement. Over millennia, leatherwork evolved through ages and cultures until it arrived at its modern form. To learn how your leather accessories were crafted from start to finish, read on.

 

PREPARATORY STAGES

Preservation

All leather products begin here, with the preservation process. Once the animal’s skin is removed, chemicals are applied to the skin to keep it from decomposing. The simplest way to do this is using salt.

Soaking

Soaking is done, of course, to clean the skin. Soaking is almost always done in an alkaline solution, although it can be done in warm water. The soaking process generally lasts a day or longer.

Liming

Liming is another soaking process that helps with the removal of hair. Liming is done in an alkali, which reacts with the keratin in the hair to weaken it and help it separate from the skin.

Unhairing

Unhairing is the process of removing hair from the skin. The liming process will have removed much of the hair, but the rest has to be scraped from the skin.

Reliming, Deliming and Bating

After being unhaired, the skin must go back into a liming solution. This solution is meant to break down unwanted proteins and get rid of the last stubborn hairs. Once this is finished, the skin is delimed to remove the alkali and lower the pH value of the skin. This is done by adding acid to cancel out the alkali. After this, the pelt goes through the bating process, which removes the last bit of debris and corrects swelling. It also makes the pelt supple.

Degreasing

Fats and lipids must be removed from the pelt in order to clean the spaces between the fibers and allow for even dying. This can be done using degreasers, solvents, or lipases.

Bleaching

The pelt must be bleached to lighten its colour. This allows a wider range of colour choice during staining.



TANNING

“Tanning” is probably the most well-known word related to leather crafting, but many people don’t know exactly what it entails or what it is for. Tanning is the process that ensures longevity of the final product. Without it, the leather would be stiff and eventually decompose. There are actually many ways to tan a hide. Traditionally, tanneries soaked hides in vats of tanning solution made with bark and other plant products. Modern tanneries use large rotating drums to soak hides in a chemical solution, usually chromium. Tanning can take from hours to months, depending on the type of tanning and the desired outcome. Modern tanneries usually tan a pelt for a few days. Once a hide is tanned, it can officially be called “leather.”

Leather tanning drums

 

CRUSTING

The final steps to creating leather are geared toward the aesthetics of the leather. During crusting, the leather is smoothed, shaved, pressed, softened, dyed, texturised, and varnished. In modern tanneries, these processes are done as the leather is run through a variety of machines that condition and enhance the leather.

 

PRODUCTION

Once the leather is ready, it is sent to a manufacturer who can create a beautiful product from the leather. Bags, purses, wallets, and other accessories are sewn using a pattern and a machine, much like a fabric product, but with more heavy-duty materials. Leatherworkers also use a variety of other tools, like hammers and stamps that can create the desired surface and texture.