Where Does Leather Come From? Discover Useful Answers To All Your Leather Questions
05 May 2023
Leather is in our DNA. And we always source it responsibly (from Leather Working Group-accredited tanneries). You can find out more about our gold-standard leather and our commitment to sustainability over on Radley Stories. But for answers to all of your leather-related questions, you’ve come to the right place.
What is Leather Made Of?
Let’s jump straight in. Leather is a material made from animal skin. All leathers have typically gone through the tanning process, which is a treatment that makes the material more durable, in order for it to last longer.
If you’ve ever wondered ‘where does leather come from’, the answer is everywhere. You can find leather tanneries in most countries, but the main specialists in leather making are China, India, Brazil, Russia and Italy. These countries produce the most leather, and use it to create a large variety of products. Leather is used for handbags, accessories, footwear, furniture and much more.
One of the most common types of leather is bovine leather - a genuine leather obtained from cattle, and typically made from cowhide. Different types of animal leathers have different looks, feels and characteristics. For example, lamb leather is super soft, while snakeskin, python or crocodile leathers are textured.
But can leather be made without killing animals? Over the decades, new types of leather have been created, such as fake leather (faux leather), which is designed to mirror the characteristics of leather but is an animal-friendly and eco-friendly alternative. We discuss this later in our Radley London leather guide.
A (Very) Brief History of Leather
Leather making is an ancient art that dates back over 7000 years ago. At first, it involved using more natural methods, but it’s thought to be Hebrews and Egyptians who were the first to invent vegetable tanning - a process that uses natural vegetable tannins to complete the tanning process. Over time, the craft of leather making reached more corners of the world, such as the Middle East and it began in Europe around the 15th Century.
What are the Benefits of Leather?
There are many reasons why leather is so popular. It’s known for its durability, which means products are guaranteed to last, even with continued use if properly cared for. Because, what is leather made of? As it’s animal skin, it maintains similar characteristics - resilience and strength. That’s why it’s favourable in the creation of products that need to withstand regular use – such as handbags, car seats, saddlery and sofas. In fact, it is bovine leather that’s most popularly used in production of accessories, due to the fact it can survive abrasions, scuffs and lots of wear and tear.
These are just some of the reasons leather is used to make accessories. With correct tanning, leather also holds colour beautifully (and you know we love introducing new seasonal shades across our leather collections).
Leather is durable and strong, but it must be cared for properly in order to make sure it lasts and maintains its quality. It’s naturally water-resistant (English weather, we’re looking at you), but leather is only 100% impermeable if it has a waterproof coating. If you own a leather handbag, you’ll need to treat inevitable scuffs or stains in order to preserve and protect the material. Luckily, we have a range of leather care products that will help to keep your Radley London item in great condition.
How is Leather Made?
As mentioned, cowhide is the most common material used to make leather. In many cases, the cowhide is a by-product of another industry - most likely, meat. This process actually dates back to the Stone Age. Experts and researchers who have explored the history of leather found cavemen hunted for meat but would use every part of the animal for other aspects of their lives. This included using fur and animal skins to create warm, windproof and waterproof clothing.
To create leather, the rawhide is treated with a process called tanning. This takes place in a tannery and is a permanent change to the hide that will preserve it, remove its moisture, protect it from bacteria and make it more durable. There are multiple types of tanning methods, including vegetable tanning, mineral tanning and oil tanning. It is during this tanning process that some leathers are also dyed. Once the animal leathers have been tanned and dyed, it is then dried, stretched and softened before it’s used to make the final product. You can read more about these processes below.
So, can leather be made without killing animals? Well, kind of. Faux leather is an animal-friendly alternative to genuine leather. However, it’s often made using plastics, which means it’s not good for the environment as it takes longer to biodegrade.
Here at Radley London, we use leather to craft beautiful handbags, but you’ll never see us use exotic or endangered animal skins. Any prints you see on our leathers, such as a mock-croc or faux-python, have been created by our leather experts using bovine hides. You can read more about our environmental commitments on our website. And, of course, you can shop from our amazing range of non-leather handbags, made using recycled materials that used to be plastic bottles.
Types of Leather Processes
So now you know the answers to ‘where does leather come from’ and ‘what is leather made of’, but let’s look a little deeper into how it’s made. We’ve already mentioned that tanning is the main process involved, but just like there are lots of leather types, there are lots of tanning types too. Not to mention the other processes used to give leathers different effects.
Vegetable tanning: When shopping for leather products, you might see this mentioned a lot. But what is leather vegetable tanning? It’s one of the earliest leather tanning processes to be invented and is still used today. The result is veg-tanned leather. We use it to create lots of our Radley London leathers. For this, tannins are taken from natural sources, such as plant parts including bark, fruit, leaves and roots. It is a tanning type that’s better for the environment and the result is biodegradable leather.
Mineral or chrome tanning: A much faster method of tanning than vegetable tanning. Chrome tanning is done using a tanning agent called chromium sulphate, or salts from zirconium or aluminium. It results in soft, thin types of leather that are exceptionally flexible, water-repellent, colourful and heat resistant.
Aldehyde tanning: Resulting in a creamy colour, aldehyde tanning is chrome-free and is often used for products that need to be more sensitive – such as leather shoes for infants.
The answer to ‘how is leather made’ only starts with tanning. It is just one of the many processes leather might go through before it’s crafting into a complete product. Let’s break it down a little more and tell you about the other process your leather might go through before it’s ready for you.
Moisturising: To help the leather stay supple so it doesn’t crack or break.
Dyeing: During the tanning process, dyeing is done to give all types of animal leather a new colour. As leather is a natural product, the way it absorbs this colour can differ, leading to subtle differences in the dyes. Have you ever wondered if you can dye a leather handbag yourself? While it’s possible to dye a leather handbag, it can be a tricky process that involves trialling colours, using expert tools, preparing the leather, conditioning it and waterproofing it.
Pigmentation: An alternative to dyeing leather during tanning, pigmentation is when dye is sprayed across the leather to give it a new colour.
Tumbling or Milling: These options are used to make the leather much softer. Tumbling or milling involves rotating the leather in a large barrel to make it feel much more supple and enhance the prominence of grain.
Waxing: Waxing leather helps to improve water-resistance, maintain breathability and keeps it feeling supple.
Plating: This is where the leather is treated under high heat and heavy pressure to give it a more polished surface.
Drying: There are different ways of drying. For example, the leather could be laid out flat and left to dry naturally. Or, another method involves putting the leather through large rollers to draw out all the moisture and remove wrinkles.
Buffing & Polishing: This treatment is usually completed at the end of leather production to give it a smooth surface.
What Happens to Leather Over Time?
With wear and tear, even the highest quality leathers are likely to become softer. When buying a new bag or purse you may notice that the material is tight but with continued use, it becomes more supple. Other factors can also impact the properties of leather, including sunlight, natural body oils and dirt. These may soften the material and in extreme circumstances, even change its colour slightly.
To keep your Radley London leather items in the best condition possible, be sure to use our leather care products. We have cloths to use before you wear your bag to help protect the surface from everyday dirt and water marks. And once you start using your new purchase, it could get dirty or stained with everyday use, so use our leather cleaner to gently remove any mild marks or water-based stains.
Why is Leather a 3rd Anniversary Gift?
Every wedding anniversary is symbolised by a specific material. It’s believed these represent the relationship as it grows stronger with every year. So what is leather? It’s traditional for leather to be given as a 3rd wedding anniversary gift. It follows paper (for the 1st anniversary) and cotton (for the 2nd). This is because leather symbolises strength, flexibility and durability. It will also last forever if it is treated correctly – qualities that help a marriage to thrive.
Facts About Leather
The value of the leather industry worldwide was over $271 billion in 2021.
The hide and skin represents around 5-10% of the value of the animal.
White is the most difficult colour of leather to produce.
In Italy in the 17th Century, leather was a popular choice of wallpaper.
Objects such as mugs were once made from leather.
We hope that answered all of your questions about leather. If you’re interested in finding out more about our leather craftsmanship or sustainability, you can find it all over on Radley Stories. While you’re there, take a look at some of our other Radley London guides, including Animal Prints Used In Fashion or Trendy Designer Purses.