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Italian Leather – The Valuable Uses of This Global Favorite

When working with leather, my favorite is luxurious Italian leather with unique colors or a superb texture. While it may cost more to purchase, these leathers have always been a joy to work with and help elevate my work with a high-quality finish. 

Italian leather is leather that comes from Italy. It is world-renowned for being some of the best leather available due to its heritage tanning methods, focusing on full-grain vegetable tanned leather. Italian leather is typically more expensive than other leathers at $10 per square foot and up. 

With the price increase of Italian leather, let’s look at the qualities these hides provide, covering in-depth what makes this leather so special and sought after. 

What Is Italian Leather?

Italian leather is finished animal hides that have been produced in Italy. However, this definition alone would be doing the leather a disservice. Italian leather is a premium product due to the traditions upheld during production. Most hides are ethically sourced and are often left full grain to showcase the natural characteristics of leather. 

In addition, most Italian leather is vegetable tanned using old-world methods, further improving the quality of the leather. Some of the distinct characteristics of these tanning methods are a more flexible leather with an unmatched soft surface. 

What We’ll Explore

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

Clearing Up Myths & Misconceptions

The phrase “Italian leather” can sometimes become a misnomer that vaguely implies high-quality leather. Companies will simply tag their products as “Italian leather” with no real details on which tannery the leather comes from or its grade. 

While the term is technically still correct, it is a way for companies to mislead their customers by having them mistake leather from Italy for premium Italian leather. Not all leather from Italy is high quality, leading to confusion for those less informed about the products they purchase. 

When possible, inspect the leather in person to feel for the defining features, such as softness. If the company provides manufacturing information, research the tannery in question. As a sign of their quality, highly respected tanneries in Italy will most likely be part of a consortium.  

History of Italian Leather

Italian leather is a highly regarded leather that has been used for centuries. The leather can be seen as early as the Roman era when quality and precision were key in leather tanning. During the middle ages, Florence became the center of leather trade. This created a demand for high-quality leather goods, and tanneries began experimenting to create the best pieces possible. 

They discovered new techniques for softening the leather and methods to produce more saturated, vibrant colors. A proprietary formula of natural ingredients creates a more flexible vegetable tanned leather. Today these techniques are still used to make the high-quality leather that has become world-renowned.  

Italian Leather Characteristics Quick Reference Table

CharacteristicRating
Natural or SyntheticNatural
Surface TextureVaried
Available Thickness (oz/mm)1oz (0.4mm) – 10oz (4.0mm)
Largest Workable Size25 square feet
Flexibility (1–10)7
Softness (1–10)8
Sewability (1–10)8
Durability (1–10)6
Ease of Maintenance (1–10)5
How Long it Lasts (Daily Use)Lifetime
Available ColorsVaried
Waterproofness (1–10)4
Cost per Square Foot ($)$10–$25 per square feet
Ease of Crafting (1–10)7
Rarity (Common or Exotic)Common
Annual Production Volume1.5 billion square Feet
Biggest Exporting CountryItaly 
Biggest Importing CountryChina
Italian Leather Characteristics

In-depth Characteristics of Italian Leather

Natural or Synthetic

Italian leather is some of the most natural leather you can purchase. The large tanneries in Italy have a consortium in which they work to keep the quality of the leather produced high. This includes only using animals harvested for meat, not their skins, using old-world tanning methods, and keeping most leathers full grain. These qualities are higher sought after when searching for quality leather.  

Surface Texture

The surface texture of Italian leather may vary based on the type of leather being produced. Common vegetable tanned leather can be smooth, waxy, or pebbled. This is expanded on further when other leathers are produced. Suedes, for example, will have a much more fibrous surface. A common trait with most Italian leathers, however, is how soft the surface is to the touch. 

Available Thickness

Typically Italian leather is used for more delicate projects, so finding a thick piece of leather may be difficult. These leathers are commonly found in 3–6 ounces or (1.2mm–2.4mm), however some retailers offer leather up to 10 ounces (4.0mm) thick, a good weight for belts, straps, and other projects. 

Largest Workable Size 

The most common way Italian leather is sold is by shoulders or double shoulders, cutting out the belly part of the leather. This keeps the leather high quality but reduces the amount of total leather. These can range from 6–16 square feet. While uncommon, Italian leather can still be found as a side, with sizes as large as 25 square feet.

Flexibility

One of the best features of Italian leather is its flexibility. Typically vegetable tanned leather will remain firmer, potentially even cracking when bent. However, Italian leather does not have that problem, with most semi-rigid leathers. While they are more flexible than other vegetable tanned leathers, vegetable tanned Italian leather will still not be as flexible as chromium tanned leather. 

Softness

Softness is what Italian leather is best known for. Despite most of the leather being vegetable tanned, the leather remains flexible and silky smooth. Compared to others, Italian leather acts like heavy chromium tanned leather with all the benefits of vegetable tanning. 

This is why Italian leather is often chosen for clothing and items like watch straps, jackets, or shoes. No other vegetable tanned leather can match the softness provided by a high-quality Italian hide. 

Sewability

Sewing Italian leather should feel completely familiar. Every step during the sewing process is simple, with no heavy waxes on the surface to coat the needles. If I had to note one downside, it would be the softness. 

Unlike regular vegetable tanned leathers, Italian leather can bunch up more easily. This can be managed by simply adjusting the thread tension, and it does not cause a problem once locked in. 

Durability

From my experience Italian leather is durable, but the finishing is not. When first purchasing the leather, it will often have beautiful colors, a matte finish, and light marbling. Most people fall in love with this look only for it to be completely covered as it patinas. 

While this is inevitable with vegetable tanned leather, Italian leather seems especially delicate to oils and staining. In all other areas of wear, however, the full grain nature of the leather keeps it strong, long-lasting, and usable for decades without failing from wear and tear.  

Ease of Maintenance

While the maintenance process of Italian leather is the same as most other leathers, the leather darkens much more easily. Even when using the lightest leather conditioners available, Italian leather is most likely to lose the marbling found on the surface. 

While this does not change the item’s durability, it can be highly disappointing for those looking to keep the factory look as long as possible. If preserving the finish is not a priority, Italian leather is easily maintained with routine cleaning and conditioning. 

Lifespan With Daily Use

With high-quality materials, Italian leather has an incredible lifespan, often lasting decades, if not a lifetime. Italian leather is typically made from full grain leather. Keeping as much of the densely packed grain on the hide as possible will give the leather extra layers before structural damage occurs. 

Additionally, most Italian leather is vegetable tanned leather. This natural processing method focuses on preserving the best qualities leather has to offer and helping prolong the life of the leather.

Available Colors

Italian leather is huge in the fashion industry and a staple for high-quality leather products. This encourages tanneries to produce their leather in a wide variety of colors. Italian leather can be found in standard colors such as brown and black. 

However, this leather shines by going above and beyond with their prints, and other offerings. Italian leather truly comes in every color, far surpassing what is commonly offered in the leather industry, all while keeping the leather a high-quality vegetable tan.

Waterproofness

Italian leather is not waterproof and is more sensitive to water than other leathers. These leathers will typically have small patterns on the grain of the leather, resembling marbling techniques or streaks like hand-dyed leather. While these details make the leather attractive, they are also easily removed. 

Even the smallest amount of water will cover these details. The tanning method also provides little benefit in water resistance. Like other vegetable tanned leathers, Italian leather can be molded. If the leather were ever to become oversaturated with water, the structure of the item could be in jeopardy.

Cost

All the premium qualities of Italian leather come at an equally premium price, starting at around $10 per square foot. This price only increases as most of these leathers are sold in panels or shoulders rather than full hides. 

It is not uncommon to find small pieces of Italian leather for $20–$25 per square foot. The tanneries often cut off the belly of the leather to offer only the best parts of the hide to customers, ensuring each piece purchased is worth the high price tag. 

Ease of Crafting

Working with Italian leather is a joy. The leather cuts well, produces a high polish, and keeps enough firmness to pass needles through with little struggle. The few small things holding the leather back are how easy it is to damage, and the different sewing tension. 

Italian leather scratches and stains easily, and moving the leather around on a workbench is sometimes enough to mark it. The softness can catch some off guard when trying to sew the leather. 

Typically vegetable tanned leather is firm, but Italian leather can feel more spongy. A too-tight thread may cause the leather to bunch up when pulling threads to tension. Correcting the thread tension is simple and does not provide a problem after getting a feel for the leather. 

Rarity (Common or Exotic)

Italian leather is a common leather found in leathercraft. While its production is limited by the number of quality tanneries in the area, they still produce 1.5 billion square feet annually, making Italy and its leather third in global production. 

Italian leather is highly sought after, with many companies worldwide using it for various goods. This keeps the demand for Italian leather high, and production of the leather continues at a rapid pace. 

Soft Brown Italian Leather - Italian Leather - Liberty Leather Goods
Soft Brown Italian Leather

Pros of Italian Leather

Crafters often want their products to match their skill level when improving in leather craft, and leather quality plays a big part. Using Italian leather makes even the most basic projects special, offering unique colors, patterns, or a higher-quality feel. The way Italian leather feels is often why it is chosen so much for garments, and other fashion goods. 

Pros of Italian leather include:

  1. Soft and plush feel for comfort 
  2. High-quality
  3. Durable by remaining full grain and vegetable tanned
  4. Offers unique colors or prints
  5. Classic and timeless style

Most hides are ethically sourced and are often left full-grain to showcase the natural characteristics of leather. In addition, most Italian leather is vegetable tanned using old-world methods, further improving the quality of the leather.

Cons of Italian Leather

Italian leather also has a few unique qualities that can hinder the leather. Cons of Italian leather can include:

  1. Cost – It is a luxury material, demanding high dollar prices. As a result, crafters can easily get much more material if they choose to avoid Italian leather. 
  1. Cleaning – Its marbled surface pattern is easily covered by soaps or conditioners. Many will enjoy the initial look of the leather, only to find it has darkened significantly, with the unique effects lost. This is because Italian leather is highly sensitive to oils. The leather quickly absorbs any form of liquid on the surface. Resulting in aggressive dark marks that surpass what many will be used to. This makes cleaning to retain the original surface nearly impossible. 
  1. Sewing – Italian leather is semi-rigid, and will slightly bunch if thread tension is pulled too hard. 
  1. Environmental impact – Although many Italian leather hides are ethically sourced, the tanneries still have room for improvement. Barbara Resta, Stefano Dotti, and Roberto Pinto, from the University of Bergamo, in Bergamo, Italy, detailed the environmental sustainability of tanneries throughout Italy and found less than 15% have taken steps to reduce the amount of waste generated, including energy and water waste. 

How Italian Leather is Made

Italian leather originates from mostly local cow hides used for meat. High-quality tanneries in Italy make it a point never to harvest an animal for its skin. These hides are salted and transported to the tanneries, where they will be cleaned and scraped. Afterward, the hides will begin the months-long tanning process in different vats. 

With vegetable tanning, they stick to natural tanning supplies rather than using chromium. Once the leather has been made it will be colored. Italian leathers are typically sprayed rather than drum dyed, giving them a unique surface. The leather will also be sealed, making it ready for retailers. 

This helpful video by the Pelle Vegetale Consortium demonstrates a detailed tanning process from an Italian tannery in Tuscany, showcasing the heritage used in their method for creating their leather. 

Production Statistics of Italian Leather

  1. Volume per year – 1.5 billion square feet
  1. Key country or countries where it is produced – Italy
  1. Biggest exporting country – Italy
  1. Biggest importing country – China

Cost of Italian Leather

  1. Square Foot – $10–$25
  1. ½ Hide – $70–$150
  1. Full Hide – $120–$220 

When You Might Leathercraft With Italian Leather

  1. When looking for a high-quality finish for any leather project. 
  2. When needing a distinctive color or pattern. 
  3. When needing softer leather for high-quality garments. 

Tips for Leathercrafting With Italian Leather

  1. Keep your work area as clean as possible since the leather marks easily.
  2. Practice thread tension on a small piece to ensure consistent stitching.
  3. Store properly and away from other leather to ensure the leather remains in pristine condition.

Some Examples of Items Made From Italian Leather

  1. Boots and shoes
  2. Garments
  3. Watch straps
  4. Wallets

My Personal Research on Italian Leather

To better appreciate Italian leather, I purchased some to work with and will be looking at how the leather works for cutting and edge work and what crafters love about this luxury leather. 

Personal Experience 

Italian leather is one of my favorite leathers to work with in many ways. Cutting the leather is easy, with the blade flowing through. The leather is firm enough to not stretch while still being soft for a smooth cut. This is a similar experience when performing edge work on the leather. Beveling, creasing, and sanding all go smoothly with the leather. 

I was extremely impressed with how the leather burnished — with minimal time, the leather produced a high shine that only got glossier with each additional step. However, there were a couple of downsides. Firstly, the leather was easily marked. 

My ruler has a grip backing to prevent sliding, and making adjustments without picking up the ruler caused marks in the leather. When burnishing the edges, the Tokonole I used could drip over to the front occasionally, quickly staining the leather. Overall the leather is a joy to work with but can be considered much more delicate.

Other Crafters

Since Italian leather is often used for shoes, I decided to examine why cordwainers choose this leather. While softness played a big factor, they also discussed the leather’s flexibility. The leather has to be tightly forced around in a shoe shape during the lasting process. With most vegetable tanned leathers, this can cause unsightly creases. 

However, Italian leather is more pliable and can be used without creases, allowing for luxury leather shoes to be made with vegetable tanned leather. When looking at traditional leather crafters, they seem to love the look of Italian leather. Most small businesses have to “wow” their audience with pictures or videos, and Italian leather can provide that factor. 

The unique colors with small marbling details help items stand out. In addition, the ease of burnishing allows crafters to create products with a high shine that further helps sell their products. 

Conclusion 

There is a lot to love about Italian leather, from how it is easy to work with to the final look it creates. It is interesting to see how leather can benefit other areas of leatherwork while still providing traditional crafters with near-perfect leather. Overall the material adds refinement, and luxury, helping enhance any product made with it. 

Italian Leather Care and Maintenance

How to Clean Italian Leather

The basics of cleaning Italian leather are the same as others: brush the surface, soap the leather, and allow it to dry. However, darkening can be a big problem when cleaning Italian leather. With this in mind, I often suggest focusing on more cleaning through brushing. 

A horsehair brush is a perfect tool to pass along the surface of the leather and remove dirt and other stuck-on debris. If soap is necessary, choosing a sensitive leather soap will be best. They will be advertised as not changing the color and will help keep Italian leather looking as new as possible. However, always test a small area first will show how the leather will react to the soap. 

How to Condition Italian Leather

Keeping potential darkening in mind, I like to condition Italian leather with a leather conditioner specifically for lighter colors. These will be advertised to keep the color of the leather the same. The conditioner will simply be applied to the leather, rubbing off any excess, and left to dry. If darkening is not a concern, any leather conditioner can be used for this process. 

How to Store Italian Leather

Italian leather should be stored away from sunlight and moisture and in a temperature-controlled environment. In addition, the surface of the leather should be rolled into itself when possible to avoid discoloration. Ideally, Italian leather should also be stored alone, avoiding any potential color rub-off from other pieces, as the leather quickly absorbs any oils. 

Helpful Insights on Italian Leather

Is Italian leather a real leather?

Yes, Italian leather is real leather, and is some of the best leather available. The leather remains full grain, showcasing the natural marks present on a cow, and is also vegetable tanned. Both are popular methods when keeping leather as natural as possible, making Italian leather some of the “most real” leathers available.

Is Italian leather better than American leather?

Both Italian and American leather are great, and each has pros and cons. One is not better than the other, as they serve different purposes. Italian leather is ideal for products that require a softer touch. In contrast, American leather is best for thick, durable projects. More than anything, using the right leather is most important when picking between the two. 

How can you tell Italian leather?

When identifying Italian leathers, the texture will be a huge sign. Italian leather is extremely soft, and slightly spongy. When looking at the leather itself, it may have slight marbling and beauty marks from the cow. Bug bites or stretch marks might also be present on Italian leather as it is full grain. 

What does Italian leather feel like?

Italian leather feels smooth and soft and has a slightly spongy feel. While it is still vegetable tanned leather, it is not stiff. The leather feeling is comparable to lambskin, or other less durable animal hides. The flesh side of the leather will also be tight, with little to no loose fibers, often slicked down to provide a luxurious finish. 

Is Italian leather waterproof?

No, Italian leather is not waterproof and is affected more by liquids and oils than most leathers. The leather quickly soaks up any liquids it comes in contact with and easily discolors the leather. This becomes more of an issue as the surface often contains a small marbling pattern completely hidden when the leather darkens. 

Does Italian leather peel?

No, most Italian leathers will not peel. The main focus of these leathers is natural tanning methods, with little to no artificial coatings added. While there may be a few outliers in the leather types, most Italian leather is full grain vegetable tanned leather and does not experience peeling. 

Key Takeaways

  1. Italian leather is a luxury leather with an equally luxurious price.
  2. Most Italian leathers are full grain and vegetable tanned. 
  3. Italian leather is softer, more flexible, and comes in more colors than other vegetable tanned leathers. 

In Closing

As leather crafters, we often learn to appreciate the differences in leather types by experiencing them up close. When a unique leather, like Italian leather, comes around, we will likely notice an improvement in quality. The softness, flexibility, colors, and finish combine to produce a superb leather. 

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