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Hair-on Cowhide Leather – Its Qualities and When To Use It

After working with various leather types, I recently tried my hand at cowhide leather. Not only is it the most common type of hair-on leather, but it is also available in a large variety at reasonable prices. From bags to rugs, cowhide can be used in many different ways.

Hair-on cowhide leather is the finished product of tanned cow skin with the fur left on. This showcases the animal’s unique pattern and further expands on the creativity in leathercraft. Cowhide leather can be used in any project, from wallets to bags, and cost $5–$10 per square foot.

Let’s discover why cowhide is the most popular choice for hair-on leather and what makes it an extremely versatile leather choice.

What Is Hair-on Cowhide Leather?

Hair-on cowhide leather is cow and other bovine leather with fur still on the surface of the leather. This makes for a unique leather that can be used to bring a tactile element to leather projects. Cowhide leather can be used for all the same projects as other leathers.

Bags, shoes, and rugs are just a few popular projects where cowhide leather excels. Cowhide leather comes in various colors that may have been dyed to produce unique color patterns, blending natural cow hair with bold, unconventional colors.

What We’ll Explore

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

Clearing Up Myths & Misconceptions

Cowhide is commonly seen as a delicate leather. The reasoning is the hair is an additional challenge for upkeep. However, cowhide is much more resilient than most leathers. Cowhide is chrome tanned leather, making it more water-resistant.

The hair on the surface acts as a significant barrier, soaking up any liquids or debris before it can make its way to the flesh of the leather. This may seem counterintuitive as hair seems challenging to clean. However, hair-on cowhide leather can be cleaned aggressively with various soaps and water. Overall, it is a lot more resilient and easily maintained.

History of Hair-on Cowhide Leather

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Since man began harvesting animals for their fur, cowhide was available. Pelts were cleaned and salted to prevent rotting, but the hair would remain intact, providing many options for clothing, shoes, blankets, and shelter, particularly in colder environments.

As time progressed and hides began to undergo more intense processing, cowhide quickly became less produced. Currently, hair-on cowhides only make up a small percentage of leather produced, despite cow being the most popular animal for leather, accounting for 65%–70% of the total world production. 

Hair-on Cowhide Leather Characteristics Quick Reference Table

CharacteristicRating
Natural or SyntheticNatural
Surface TextureSoft, with hair coating the entire hide
Available Thickness (oz/mm)3oz (1.2mm)–9 oz (3.6mm)
Largest Workable Size50 square feet
Flexibility (1-10)8
Softness (1-10)9
Sewability (1-10)6
Durability (1-10)7
Ease of Maintenance (1-10)8
How Long it Lasts (Daily Use)20–40 Years
Available ColorsMixed patterns combined with various dyed colors
Waterproofness (1-10)7
Cost per Square Foot ($)$5–$10
Ease of Crafting (1-10)6
Rarity (Common or Exotic)Common
Annual Production Volume14,200 million square feet/367 million pieces (total bovine leather)
Biggest Exporting CountryBrazil, United States
Biggest Importing CountryIndia
Hair-on Cowhide Leather Characteristics

In-depth Characteristics of Hair-on Cowhide Leather

Natural or Synthetic

Hair-on cowhide leather is a natural chrome tanned leather. The hair left on the hide only further demonstrates these elements. Many cowhide leathers will leave the natural pattern of the hair untouched, presenting a finished piece that looks as if it has come straight from the cow.

Surface Texture

The surface of the cowhide is covered in the animal’s hair. This hair is typically cut shorter, offering a softer feeling leather. Some cowhide leathers will have longer hair than others which impacts the texture but will still provide a silk hair feeling.

Available Thickness

With the most common use for cowhides being rugs, hair-on cowhide leather can be hard to find in greater thicknesses. The most common thicknesses available are 3oz (1.2mm)–4oz (1.6mm). These are perfect weights for rugs and also work for lighter bags.

Some companies offer up to 9oz (3.6mm); while much thicker than standard sizes, hair-on cowhide remains thinner than saddle or harness leathers made from the same animal.

Largest Workable Size 

Hair-on cowhide leather is sold as a whole hide rather than in sizes. This allows the piece to be used as an accessory around the household. The largest size available for these hides is 50 square feet. However, 35–40 square feet hides are more common. Some companies may also offer smaller pieces or a side of the leather for those who prefer to use it in a project.

Brown, White, and Black Hair-on Cowhides - Hair-on Cowhide Leather - Liberty Leather Goods
Brown, White, and Black Hair-on Cowhides

Flexibility

Due to the thickness, and tanning method, hair-on cowhide leather is very flexible. The leather is kept relatively thin, with most pieces around 4oz (1.6mm). The chrome tanning process it undergoes breaks down the fiber structure of the leather, and as it rotates in a drum with these chemicals, it is beaten until softened. Cowhide can be used as bed covers or couch accents, draping over the sides — a testament to its flexibility. 

Softness

Hair-on cowhide leather is one of the softest leathers available for purchase. The hairs from the cow are left on the surface, providing a similar feeling to petting the animal. Additionally, the hide undergoes a few modifications that further increase the softness of the leather. The hairs are trimmed short, creating a fuzz, and the tanning method breaks down the leather fibers, making the surface softer. 

Sewability

Hand sewing hair-on cowhide leather can be slightly more complicated than working with other leathers due to the hair on the surface. The hair may cover guiding marks that many crafters use to sew.

It may also cause the thread to get tangled, requiring some hairs to be pulled out. Working from the backside of the leather, or using a sewing machine, is the best way to work with hair-on cowhide leather.

Durability

Despite the hair on the surface of the leather, cowhide is fairly durable. The hair acts as a barrier that can protect the leather from dust, and debris. As well as absorbing any water before it reaches the surface of the leather. The chrome tanned elements of the leather keep it from drying out as quickly, and adds a protective coating to the hide through the chemical mixture. 

Ease of Maintenance

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Hair-on cowhide leather can be easier to maintain than other leathers due to the ability to clean it using non-traditional leather products. The hair can be washed with dish soap and water as long as it is dried and not over-saturated.

Additionally, the leather does not need to be treated as often, as it does not dry out as quickly as other leathers. Some hair-on cowhide leather companies even recommend cleaning the leather with a water hose outside, which should not be done with many other types of leather.

Lifespan with Daily Use

Like most other leathers on the market, hair-on cowhide leather is made to be an heirloom piece. A heavily-used cowhide leather rug can last 20–40 years. With proper maintenance or items that do not see as much use, this leather can last 100+ years. The greatest danger to the lifespan of cowhide leather is neglect, as although it is durable, it will still need to be cleaned and potentially conditioned.  

Available Colors

One of the greatest appeals to hair-on cowhide leather is the patterns and colors available. These hides often retain much of the original color and pattern found on the cow, giving each piece a unique and organic look.

The leather can also be dyed or have a pattern imprinted on it. This creates wildly unique combinations, as tanneries can experiment with balancing the natural leather patterns with their designs. 

Waterproofness

Hair-on cowhide leather is surprisingly water resistant. The hairs are often seen as a place of worry, and many fear spills will immediately ruin the surface. However, the hair acts as a protective barrier. It soaks up much of the water before it can reach the surface of the leather, preventing damage.

The hair can then be washed and dried, completely restoring the leather to its original state. However, the leather is still not waterproof, and damage can occur if large amounts of water are left untreated. 

Cost

Hair-on cowhide leather may cost $5–$10 per square foot. This is on par with many low to midrange leathers, despite being more uncommon. However, most cowhides are sold as a full hide, 35–40 square feet. This results in the initial investment of the hide costing much more than other leathers. Due to the large size of the pieces, prices for cowhide range from $200–$400. 

Ease of Crafting

Working with hair-on cowhide leather is not much different from other leathers. The hair will obstruct possible markings if one tries to work from the surface. However, if flipped over, the hide can easily be worked from the flesh side, allowing for the same techniques to be applied when marking, cutting, gluing, or punching holes. Sewing is one of the only different and difficult parts of working with cowhide leather, as the hair can be challenging to sew on. 

Rarity (Common or Exotic)

Despite being made from the most popular animal for leather, cow, hair-on cowhide leather only makes up a small percentage of the global leather produced. To put this into perspective, cow leather makes up 65% to 70% of the total leather produced annually, yet hair-on cowhide is only a small proportion. Despite this, hair-on cowhide leather can be found in various leather stores, and rugs are sometimes sold as home goods outside specific leather stores.

Pros of Hair-on Cowhide Leather

Hair-on cowhide leather is unique in both utility and visuals. Using the natural fur of a cow means no two hides will be identical. Additionally, the fur left on the hide gives the leather a unique texture and a natural, durable layer.

Cowhide is a popular choice for animal rugs due to these characteristics, yet the leather can still be used in other ways, showcasing the versatility of cowhide leather. On top of being durable, hair-on cowhide is also fairly easy to maintain. Unconventional products such as dish soap can be used on the fur without damaging the leather.  

Cons of Hair-on Cowhide Leather

While hair-on cowhide leather may be versatile, it is a different leather that will require alternative techniques. The fur side of the leather makes it challenging to create guide marks, so the leather is best worked with from the flesh side.

Sewing can also present a challenge as the fur may make it difficult to see stitching holes while presenting a possibility of getting caught up in the thread. It can be expensive to purchase a full hair-on cowhide at once. While the prices are comparable to most midrange leathers, the hides are twice the size of what is commonly sold, making each piece a large investment.

Various Types of Hair-on Cowhide Leather - Hair-on Cowhide Leather - Liberty Leather Goods
Various Types of Hair-on Cowhide Leather

How Hair-on Cowhide Leather is Made

When leather arrives at the tannery, it typically has the hair of the animal left on and is then removed. In the case of hair-on cowhide leather, that step is skipped. The leather will continue to be cleaned and processed as any other leather but will keep its fur. Hair-on cowhide leather is chrome tanned and placed in large drums with various chemical combinations to preserve, hydrate, and soften the leather.

The hide can then be dyed or left in a natural state to showcase the cow’s organic patterns. Another difference between traditional leathers is that the hair-on cowhide leather will have its hair cut shorter to predetermined lengths. This provides additional softness to the surface of the hide.

Eliane Andrioli and Mariliz Gutterres from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Chemical Engineering Department,  Laboratory of Leather and Environmental Studies, in Porto Alegre, Brazil, describe the potential advancements when removing hair from cowhide leather. Their chemical method reduces the amount of generated waste, as well as provides a reduction in the time it takes to clean the leather.

Production Statistics of Hair-on Cowhide Leather

  1. Volume per year: 14,200 square feet/ 367 million pieces (total bovine leather)
  1. Key country or countries where it is produced: Brazil, United States, Argentina, and Colombia
  1. Biggest exporting country: Brazil
  1. Biggest importing country: India

Cost of Hair-on Cowhide Leather

  1. Square Foot: $5–$10
  1. ½ Hide: $100–$200
  1. Full Hide: $200–$400

When You Might Leathercraft With Hair-on Cowhide Leather

  1. When you want to create a piece with durable hair-on leather. 
  2. To add flair to a leather project by incorporating pieces of hair-on cowhide leather.
  3. When purchasing a versatile leather home good, rug, couch cover, or bed cover. 

Cowhide leather can be used for all the same projects as other leathers. Bags, shoes, and rugs are just a few popular projects that cowhide excels in.

Tips for Leathercrafting With Hair-on Cowhide Leather

  1. Make markings on the backside of the leather to see them more clearly. 
  2. Preplan leather projects to ensure the hair “falls” in the same direction. 
  3. Shave down the hair on areas where glue will be applied to ensure the best bond. 

Some Examples of Items Made From Hair-on Cowhide Leather

  1. Rugs
  2. Wallets 
  3. Bags
  4. Upholstery
  5. Inlays

My Personal Research on Hair-on Cowhide Leather

After researching the different properties of hair-on cowhide leather, I was interested to see its water resistance in action. I purchased scraps of hair-on cowhide for testing how it behaved when water was spilled on them.

To do this, I poured ¼ cup of water on various test pieces and noted any changes to the leather. In addition, I cut the hair off of pieces of leather shortly after pouring the water to see how much water made it to the surface.

Short-haired Cowhide

In the bag of scraps, I received various cowhides with different hair lengths. While the sizes of the hairs were not much different, I decided to separate them into two categories: short and long-haired. After pouring the water on the short-haired leather, I quickly cut away as much hair as possible to reveal the surface. Since the surface of the leather is also chrome tanned, the water rested on the surface.

There was moderate water on the surface, although the hair seemed to soak up most. I then tested a similar piece but let it air dry to see if there was any damage to the hair or leather. After drying, the piece felt as if I had never added water; the hair was still soft, and there were no signs of water damage throughout the piece.

Long-haired Cowhide

Performing the same tests on the long-haired piece, there was only a slight difference. When I removed the hair to see how much water reached the surface, I saw slightly less water, but it was not as resistant as I expected.

As for the second test, the long-haired cowhide took longer to dry as more of the hair got wet, but like the short-haired one, there was no damage. The leather had no marks nor waviness from the leather reaching the surface. 

Conclusion

After testing both types of hair-on cowhide, I was impressed with how well they repelled water. The combination of hair and a chrome tanned leather makes cowhide a solid choice for water-resistant leather, although I would stick to short-haired hides. While they did not perform as well, the short hair made for a softer textured leather, in my opinion.  

Hair-on Cowhide Leather Care and Maintenance

How to Clean Hair-on Cowhide Leather

Hair-on cowhide leather can be cleaned with soap and water. The leather’s surface is fairly resistant to water damage, so the hair can be scrubbed if necessary. Once cleaned the leather must be dried to prevent any damage. Some companies suggest hosing off cowhide rugs with water and letting the sun dry the leather. 

In this helpful video provided by Cleaning How To, Carl demonstrates how to clean a hair-on cowhide rug. He also provides information on how to remove urine from the leather rug. 

How to Condition Hair-on Cowhide Leather

Compared to other leathers, conditioning hair-on cowhide leather is slightly different. The surface of the cowhide should be left alone as the hairs will not need conditioning, only cleaning. However, you can apply your preferred leather conditioner in small amounts to the flesh side, coating the piece before letting it dry. 

How to Store Hair-on Cowhide Leather

Keep hair-on cowhide leather in a cool, dark, and well-ventilated place when storing. Leather is a porous material that can absorb moisture easily. If moisture builds up, mold can grow on the leather. Keeping the cowhide in a dark environment also ensures the leather does not dry out or fade from sunlight. 

Helpful Insights on Hair-on Cowhide Leather

What is premium cowhide leather?

Premium cowhide leather is determined by the type of cow, the quality of tanning, and the hair length. Cows worldwide have different attributes, making the finished cowhide differ. Brazilian cows are touted as the best for cowhide due to their thick, unique, short-haired hides.

The tanning quality can be determined by observing the leather’s flesh side. It should be smooth, with no loose grain. Leather that has a fuzzy backside may be of poorer quality. Lastly, the hair of the cowhides is cut during the tanning process, with shorter hair producing a softer surface texture. 

What is top layer cowhide leather?

Top layer cowhide is leather that has removed the top surface of the hide. This removes blemishes, creating a more flawless work surface. This is most commonly seen in chrome tanned leather in the fashion industry.

What does cowhide leather smell like?

Cowhides do not have a distinct smell and may only be compared to the scent of other leathers. This means cowhide will have a slight earthy odor, with various aromas of oak, smoke, or outdoor scents.

Is cow leather the best?

While there is no best leather, cow leather is extremely versatile. Since it makes up such a large part of the industry, the choices available are seemingly endless. Whether chrome, oil, or vegetable tanned or embossed, thick, thin, firm, or flexible, cow leather comes in any type of leather you may need. 

Is cowhide leather good for sofas?

Yes, cowhide is commonly used as an upholstery leather and can make high-quality pillows, seats, and sofas. The benefit of cleaning cowhide with soap and water makes the maintenance of cowhide more accessible than other leathers. 

What is full grain cowhide leather?

Full grain cowhide leather is much as the name suggests. The grain, also known as the surface of the leather, has not been shaved or reduced. This provides strength for the leather and retains the cow’s blemishes. To many, these blemishes give leather its defining characteristics, as imperfections throughout the hide showcase the animal’s life.

How long does a cowhide rug last?

Cowhide rugs should last at least 20 years but can be carefully maintained to become heirloom pieces. It is not uncommon for a cowhide rug to be 40+ years old and still look as if it were recently purchased. Leather as a material is an investment piece. When taken care of, the leather will provide many decades of enjoyment.

Key Takeaways

  1. Hair-on cowhide leather is a more durable, water-resistant leather.
  2. It is sold in whole hides rather than sides, making the initial cost of hair-on cowhide leather high.
  3. Hair-on cowhide leather can be cleaned with soap and water without damaging it as long as it is thoroughly dried.

In Closing

Hair-on cowhide is a unique leather that can be used in various ways other leathers can not. Its water resistance allows cowhide leather to see heavy wear while remaining a potential heirloom piece. These qualities, combined with the natural beauty of the hide’s organic pattern, make it an excellent choice for various projects. 

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