Leather has played an important role in the development of civilisation. From prehistoric times man has used the skins of animals to satisfy his basic needs. He has used hides to make clothing, shelter, carpets and even decorative attire. To the Egyptian lady, a fur piece was highly prized as her jewellery. From leather, man made footwear, belts, clothing, containers for liquids, boats and even armour. The principle protective armour of the Roman soldier was a heavy leather shirt.
In recorded history, pieces of leather dating from 1300 B.C. have been found in Egypt. Primitive societies in Europe, Asia and North America all developed the technique of turning skins into leather goods independently of one another. The Greeks were using leather garments in the age of the Homeric heroes ( about 1200 B.C. ), and the use of leather later spread throughout the Roman Empire. During the Middle Ages, the Chinese knew the art of making leather . The Indians of North America also had developed great skills in leather work before the coming of the white man.
At some time, by accident or by trial and error, man discovered methods of preserving and softening leather treating animal skins with such things as smoke, grease and bark extracts. The art of tanning leather using the bark of trees probably originated among the Hebrews. In primitive societies, the art was a closely guarded secret passed down from father to son. As civilisation developed in Europe, tanners and leather workers united in the trade guilds of the Middle Ages, as did the craftsmen in other fields. Royal charters or licences were issued permitting people to practice leather tanning. In the nineteenth century, vegetable tanning, i.e., tanning using the extracts from the bark of certain kinds of trees, was supplemented by chrome tanning. This process uses chemicals and today accounts for about eighty to ninety percent of all tanning done except for the leather used in the soles of shoes and tooling leathers.
How leather is sold
The most economical way to buy leather is to purchase it directly from the tannery. Leather is usually priced by the square foot and sold as a complete hide. The exact size, to the nearest 1/4 sq.ft., is measured on government approved measuring devices at the tannery. When you purchase leather this way, you are assured of getting value for money.
Leather comes from tanneries in various shapes and sizes depending on its intended use and the animal which it came from. One thing to always remember about leather - it is an animal’s skin that has been processed into finished leather, not a synthetic material. Because of this, the exact size and shape of thefinished leather is dictated somewhat by the size and shape of the animal hide that the tannery received to process.
For ease of handling during tanning, large animal hides are usually cut into smaller sections ( sides, shoulders, bellies, etc. ) at the tannery. Skins of smaller animals such as calf, goat, pig and reptiles are tanned and sold in their original shape.
Although leather is sometimes cut into various shapes for the convenience of the customer, the price is always higher because of the additional costs for labour and waste.
Buying leather is much easier if you understand what the different types of leather are used for, how different leathers are tanned and how large skins are cut and sold. Here are a few of the basic terms used in leather craft with their explanations. We will always be happy to answer any questions you may have about our craft.
Back. A side with the belly cut off, usually 15 - 18 sq.ft.
Belly. The lower part of a side, usually 4 - 8 sq.ft.
Kip. The skin of a large calf, usually 9 - 17 sq.ft.
Split. This refers to the undersection of a piece of leather that has been split into two or more thicknesses. Splits are usually embossed with a design or sueded.
Suede. Leather that has been sanded to produce a nap.
Grain. The epidermis or outer layer of animal skins.
Full Grain. Leather that is just as it was when taken off of the animal. Only the hair has been removed and the grain or epidermis is left on.
NOTE: ONLY FULL GRAIN, VEGETABLE TANNED LEATHER will absorb water and tool correctly. All leather carving and tooling must be done on full grain leather.
Top Grain. Top grain leather has often been sanded to remove scars and then sprayed or pasted to "cover up" the work. Top Grain IS NOT the same as "Full Grain" leather.
To make leather a uniform thickness, first the hides are run through a splitting machine. Since animal hides are not of uniform thickness, and since they are wet when they are put through the splitting machine, thethickness of the leather will not remain the same throughout the hide. There will always be slight variations and that is why leathers are usually shown with a range of thickness - such as 2 - 2.4mm., 3.2 - 3.6mm., etc.