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Cactus Leather – An Innovative, Vegan Leather From Plants

With the growing popularity of alternatives to leather, I started to wonder what other options were out there for my own projects. I usually gravitate towards veg tan leather, as it is a more environmentally friendly option compared to chrome tanned leather and faux leather, but now I have a growing curiosity about cactus leather.

Cactus leather is a relatively new, innovative vegan leather made from the nopal (prickly pear) cactus. It is environmentally friendly, made from about 92% plant material, stronger and more breathable than other faux leathers, useful for upholstery and clothing, and costs $6-$10 per square foot.

With so much to offer, let’s explore what cactus leather is, when to use it, and what makes it so unique.

What Is Cactus Leather?

Cactus leather is a relatively new vegan leather with much to offer. It is a faux leather that is biodegradable, environmentally friendly, and sustainable. It is made out of the nopal cactus leaves, which require little water to grow. Opposed to other vegan leathers, it is breathable and made from eco polyurethane and recycled material.

What We’ll Explore

  • Clearing up Myths & Misconceptions
  • History of Cactus Leather
  • Cactus Leather Characteristics Quick Reference Table
  • In-depth Characteristics of Cactus Leather
  • Pros of Cactus Leather
  • Cons of Cactus Leather
  • How Cactus Leather is Made
  • Production Stats for Cactus Leather
  • Cost of Cactus Leather
  • When You Might Leathercraft with Cactus Leather
  • Tips for Leathercrafting With Cactus Leather
  • Examples of Goods Made from Cactus Leather
  • My Personal Research on Cactus Leather
  • Cactus Leather Care & Maintenance
  • Helpful Insights on Cactus Leather
  • Key Takeaways
Prickly Pear Cactus - Cactus Leather - Liberty Leather Goods
Prickly Pear Cactus

Clearing Up Myths & Misconceptions

The biggest myth surrounding cactus leather is that it is entirely made of cactus. At most, cactus leather is made out of 92% plant material and only 30% cactus. The remaining 10% is composed of artificial materials like polyester.

The material is a composite of eco-polyurethane and nopal cactus leaves. The material created is then bonded to a woven textile composed of cotton and polyester. The result is a much more environmentally friendly alternative to other vegan leather — notably because cactus is a large carbon sink and uses little water to grow.

History of Cactus Leather

Cactus leather first came to the market in 2019 after the company, Desserto, premiered it at the international leather fair, Lineapelle, in Milan. It was the byproduct of Adrián López Velarde and Marte Cázarez, who had experience working with leather and faux leather in the fashion and automotive industries.

They noted excessive waste and thought there had to be a more environmentally friendly alternative to faux and animal leather.They recognized the faults of faux and animal leather: Faux leather is entirely made out of plastic; animal leather is often tanned with harsh chromium salts and dyed with volatile organic compounds, and the cattle industry leads to deforestation.

With this in mind, they embarked on a two-year process of developing cactus leather.After two years of research and development with their global partners, they patented their process of making faux leather out of the nopal cactus. The result was a breathable and sustainable faux leather.

Cactus Leather Characteristics Quick Reference Table

CharacteristicRating
Natural or SyntheticSynthetic
Surface TextureNoted for being soft and pliable.
Available Thickness (oz/mm)1mm
Largest Workable Size50 yards
Flexibility (1–10)7
Softness (1–10)8
Sewability (1–10)7
Durability (1–10)8
Ease of Maintenance (1–10)9
How Long it Lasts (Daily Use)Still being determined, but stated to last a decade.
Available ColorsAny color, but notably found in cactus green, black, brown, and maroon.
Waterproofness (1–10)8
Cost per Square Foot ($)$6.50–$10 per square foot.
Ease of Crafting (1–10)8
Rarity (Common or Exotic)Currently exotic.
Annual Production VolumeUndisclosed but capable of producing 600,000 linear yards a year.
Biggest Exporting CountryMexico
Biggest Importing CountryCurrently Unavailable
Cactus Leather Characteristics

In-depth Characteristics of Cactus Leather

Natural or Synthetic

Synthetic, although it is made from 92% plant-based material. Cactus leather is an artificial product derived from the nopal cactus, bio polyurethane, recycled polyester, and cotton.

Surface Texture

One of the best things about cactus leather is its texture. It is noted as being soft to the hand, pliable, and easy to work with. It is also highly scratch resistant.

Available Thickness

Currently, cactus leather is available in a thickness of 1.0 mm. The lack of options in thickness makes it less versatile than animal leather, which is available in a wide range of thicknesses.

Largest Workable Size 

The largest available piece of cactus leather comes in 50 linear yards.

Flexibility

One of the best qualities of cactus leather is its flexibility. Since the cactus layer is thin and bonded to a textile backing, it is incredibly flexible, much like chrome tanned leather.

Softness

Cactus leather is rather soft, mimicking the feel of chrome tanned leather.

Sewability

The great thing about cactus leather is that it can be approached more like a fabric than leather. This means that it can be sewn with a lighter-weight sewing machine. You don’t need an industrial sewing machine to sew through the material. That being said, the material does not work well with a groover, so don’t expect to groove the leather for that perfect stitch line like you would with a veg tan leather.

One of the main advantages of cactus leather is that it can be sewn on lighter-weight machines compared to comparable chrome tanned leathers.

Durability

Cactus leather is an extremely durable product. The leather surface is scratch resistant, and the backing material provides the strength needed for many applications, including:

  1. Upholstery
  2. Footwear
  3. Bags
  4. Jackets

Ease of Maintenance

Unlike animal leather, cactus leather requires little maintenance. It is an organic product that reacts poorly to harsh chemicals and cleaning agents. It just needs to be wiped off with a soft rag or cleaned with a gentle soap.

Lifespan with Daily Use

Cactus leather has not been available long enough to know if it is viable for heirloom quality goods. However, Desserto states that their cactus leather will last a decade with normal use.

Available Colors

If ordering directly from the manufacturer, the color options are endless. A quick look through the Desserto catalog has a variety of textures and colors available. However, it is most noted for its natural green color. Common cactus leather colors include:

  1. Cactus Green
  2. Maroon
  3. Brown
  4. Black
  5. White

Waterproofness

One of the best qualities of cactus leather, since it is made with bio-polyurethane, is that it is waterproof. The weakest point regarding its waterproofness is the seams when sewn. You won’t have to worry about the leather absorbing water and drying out like animal leather.

Cost

Currently, the process of making cactus leather is patented and only manufactured by Desserto. The price ranges from $6.50–$10 per square foot, making it slightly more expensive than chrome tanned leather.

Ease of Crafting

Cactus leather can be used in many applications. It is easy to work with, especially for handbags and accessories. One of the main advantages of cactus leather is that it can be sewn on lighter-weight machines compared to comparable chrome tanned leathers. Just don’t plan on using a groover to lay your stitch line.

Rarity (Common or Exotic)

Currently, cactus leather is far from common. A quick search on the internet will show many products manufactured from cactus leather, but there are few sources for the material itself. It may not be on the shelves of your local craft or leather store just yet.

Pros of Cactus Leather

Cactus leather is a great leather alternative for reasons including: 

  1. Derived from roughly 92% plant material
  2. Uses bio polyurethane
  3. Sustainable
  4. Duarable
  5. Unique texture
  6. Uses very little water to produce – as the cactus survives in arid environments, and aside from the initial cleaning, the manufacturing process uses little water compared to animal leathers.

Cons of Cactus Leather

However, cactus leather is far from a replacement for natural leather, including:

  1. Not as durable as veg tan leather
  2. Limited availability
  3. Not been around long enough to know if it can produce heirloom quality goods. You won’t be using it to make horse tack or motorcycle jackets, as it doesn’t have the same resilience.

Check out this helpful video comparing and testing pineapple, cork, and cactus leather.

How Cactus Leather is Made

Cactus leather is made from the nopal cactus — more commonly called the prickly pear cactus. The process starts by harvesting the mature leaves of the cactus, leaving the cactus and its newer leaves intact. The leaves are then washed, cleaned, and mashed. The mash is spread out on plastic barriers in the sun and allowed to dry.

When the drying process is complete, the mashed cactus leaves are ground into a fine powder and mixed with bio polyurethane to make a synthetic material that looks and feels like leather. It is then bonded to a textile backing, resulting in vegan leather that is more environmentally friendly than all other animal and synthetic leathers.

Production Statistics of Cactus Leather

  1. Volume per year: Capable of producing 600,000 linear yards a year.
  1. Key country or countries where it is produced: Mexico
  1. Biggest exporting country: Mexico
  1. Biggest importing country: Currently Unavailable

Cost of Cactus Leather

  1. Square Foot: $6.50–$10
  1. ½ Hide: Not available
  1. Full Hide: Not available

When You Might Leathercraft With Cactus Leather

  1.  When you want to reduce your carbon footprint.
  2.  When you are looking for a vegan alternative to leather.
  3.  When you want a scratch-resistant and waterproof material.

Tips for Leathercrafting With Cactus Leather

  1.  Don’t plan on using any dyes with Cactus leather; instead, use paint, which will work well on the edges.
  2.  Avoid using harsh chemicals and solvents around cactus leather, as it can cause the backing to separate.
  3. Consider folding the edges to protect the leather from delaminating or peeling.

Some Examples of Items Made From Cactus Leather

  1. Shoes
  2. Bags
  3. Jackets
  4. Wallets
  5. Keychains

My Personal Research on Cactus Leather

I was excited when I first heard about cactus leather, but what struck me the most was that this is far from a viable option for crafters. The sole manufacturer of cactus leather, Desserto, appears to be in the market of supplying manufacturing companies directly. Thus, it is rather hard to find.

However, my curiosity was strong. So I dove deep into their website, explored videos, and read interviews, such as this one here, where the founders of Desserto discuss its origins.

Findings

I was struck by the parallels that I feel as a crafter and the founders of Desserto felt working in the appeal and upholstery industries. I am often torn between balancing the most eco-friendly options and producing heirloom-quality goods.

One of the reasons I don’t like working with chrome dyed leathers — although they feel luxurious — is they are often produced in countries without stringent environmental legislation and subsequently have a lot of horrible byproducts, such as chromium.

Similarly, traditional vegan leathers are predominately made of plastic and wind up in landfills. As noted in Sydney William’s study on sustainable leather alternatives. Desserto appears to be combating the waste issues of plastic, deforestation, and the reduction of greenhouse gasses.

Desserto saw the amount of greenhouse gasses produced in the cattle industry, the amount of water used in the tanning industry, and the copious amounts of plastic that wound up in landfills from the faux leather industry. They saw the need for action and subsequently made significant advancements by creating a sustainable alternative to animal leather.

Conclusion

I must admit that cactus leather is far from novel. Given the advancements in mushroom and pineapple leather, I am curious to see the future of alternatives to animal leather. I don’t believe cactus leather will replace animal leather altogether, but it may lead to a more sustainable and environmentally friendly option for mass-produced goods.

Cactus Leather Care and Maintenance

How to Clean Cactus Leather

Cactus leather is easy to clean. Simply wipe dirt off with a lint-free cloth. If needed, use a damp cloth or mild soap, and wipe down the entire piece of leather.

How to Condition Cactus Leather

The great thing about cactus leather is that it doesn’t require conditioning. Just keep it clean and enjoy it.

How to Store Cactus Leather

Cactus leather is best stored in a cool, dry environment. Always keep away from heat and harsh chemicals such as acetone. If desired, store it in a lint-free bag to keep the dust off between use.

Helpful Insights on Cactus Leather

Is cactus leather good quality?

Cactus leather is still in its infancy, so much about it is unknown. However, it is a high-quality product that shows a great deal of promise. It has a soft hand, comparable to chrome tanned leather, and is breathable, unlike traditional faux leather. Although it isn’t heirloom quality, it is biodegradable and can last a decade.

What is cactus leather?

Cactus leather is a synthetic vegan leather made from the nopal cactus. It is manufactured by Desserto, 92% plant-based, sustainable, and biodegradable.

What are the disadvantages of cactus leather?

The main disadvantage of cactus leather is that it is relatively new, so its lifespan is unknown. Although it is stated to last up to a decade, that is a far shorter lifespan compared to animal leather. It is a great option for manufacturing goods with a short lifespan but not for heirloom quality goods. Another downside to cactus leather is that its strength is derived from its woven backing. If delimitation occurs, the upper layer is fragile and prone to tear. 

Is cactus leather cheaper than real leather?

No, Cactus leather is generally 25% more expensive than animal leather. Cactus leather is comparable in feel, appearance, and thickness to chrome tanned leather, which generally costs $4–$7 per square foot. Cactus leather costs slightly more at $6.50–$10 per square foot.

Key Takeaways

  1. Cactus leather is a relatively new material, and its lifespan is still unknown.
  2. Cactus leather is much more sustainable and environmentally friendly than animal and faux leather.
  3. Cactus leather is geared towards manufacturers, so it may be more difficult for crafters to obtain.

In Closing

With the ever-changing climate and the effects of deforestation and pollution caused by the leather industry, it’s great to see that companies are investing in alternative solutions. Although there will always be a place for animal leather, cactus leather provides the opportunity to make quality goods that look and feel like leather while being sustainable and potentially benefiting the environment.

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