Types of leather, where we use them & perhaps why.
We use leather on most of our bags. We like leather, how it looks, feels, how it ages and develops. It sits perfectly next to our waxed cotton that also ages and grows with you, it’s strong and a versatile material to use. But that’s the thing, leather by its nature is variable and using it correctly is something we consider from the start. So why do we use leather here and not there? And what are all these different types of leather?
Leather wasn’t really invented; it’s been postulated early man discovered well preserved animal hides in bogs and quagmires. Finding such treasure would have been mighty important, it would protect him and his family from the elements much longer and better than his neighbour wrapped in stinking and rotting bison skin. It would have elevated his social status to that of cave king (read this Ray Mears)… Now this is my theory, because of his elevated status young science minded folk of the cave wanted to achieve cult status too. So they went and recreated the bogs in their own back yards, after a bit of tinkering, and a thousand or so years they perfected leatherisation of animal skin, got all the poontang and the rest is history.
So what is leather really – leather is the result of turning the skin of an animal that is perishable, into something that isn’t by the process of tanning. Tanning takes many forms, but in essence is a chemical reaction that stops aerobic and anaerobic organisms processing and digesting (rotting) an animal skin, leaving an inert material we call leather. It can be achieved by recreating conditions of the bogs above with natural vegetable matter and minerals, or it can be ramped up, using technology and chemicals. As you would expect, different animals have different skins, and different tanning processes create different leather. Then different parts of that leather suit different applications.
Leather we use
We use it all. Producing items by hand means we have the benefit of time to select exactly what we want, whilst also taking advantage of seasonal trends. Leather like any commodity (leather is traded internationally as a commodity without futures) that follows another market (food) it is heavily influenced by supply and demand, so we have an active presence in tanneries near to our production. We can pop in and see what is happening, and take advantage of what is fresh, new, interesting and a good price. We shop in the tannery like we would in the butchers, selecting the best cuts at the best prices as and when we see them. Much like you may change plans for a meal when presented with a different cut of meat we apply the same principle with leather.
A cow, a goat and a hairsheep walk into bar – all ordering different drinks, the barman asks the goat, ‘why the long face?’ the goat replies, ‘you should see the horse’…
When you need larger or longer items of leather you have two options, connect panels or use a larger animal skin. Cow or bovine leather is our first choice when it comes to producing items that have straps and pieces of trim that we don’t want interrupted by seams. You might have noticed that our straps have no stitching on them with the exception of where they are attached to the body of the bag, or to cotton webbing on shoulder straps. The leather for these straps is cut from the Butt of the hide, this leather varies in thickness, but (pun intended) we select grades that are finished to about 3.5mm to 4.5mm thick. This leather is notoriously tough to work with. It is heavy, strong and hard to cut, requiring the utmost care and attention at every stage of production. Handling it is like a ballet, ballet with a 7 foot tall body builder, one slip and you’ve chopped her head off. The reason for choosing this leather is not just strength, it is also good looking, feels nice in the hand (it is used for traditional horse bridles etc – and often gets called simply bridal leather) it ages really beautifully, and offers a level of quality that mass manufactured bags can’t replicate.
We buy whole hides, half hides, butts, shoulders and sides.
When we require leather for smaller items the choice of cut becomes less about practicality and function, and much more to do with aesthetics of the item it is going to be made into. The tanning process affects the feel of the leather, but the cut affects the handle of the leather to a greater degree. This is where being on site at the tannery, seeing and feeling what is available there and then, becomes so important. Specifying an exact colour and finish of leather months in advance introduces or rather removes the flexibility of our production process. This is not to say we don’t specify requirements, it’s just that when our specifications are open to change we can produce an item that is even more unique.