One of the most important parts of working with leather is picking the perfect leather for a project. Recently I’ve needed soft, silky leather to make a bag that feels as good as it looks. This has allowed me to try Nappa leather, a popular leather type known for its softness.
Nappa leather, or napa, is a leather type known for being soft, supple, and natural. Nappa leather uses a chromium tanned process and calf, kidskin, or lamb hides to create its well-known silky feel. Nappa leather costs $3–$7 per square foot, depending on the animal and type of hide.
Although nappa leather is a popular luxury leather type, it has distinct characteristics. Let’s look at what they are to help determine if it’s the right material for you.
What Is Nappa Leather?
Nappa leather is a type of leather that is distinctly soft, supple, and natural. The hides undergo a chromium tanning process that helps break down the fibers of the leather, softening it. While currently, chrome tanning is the most popular method for tanning leather, the natural finish and young hides separate nappa from other soft leathers.
Nappa leather uses calf, kidskin, and lamb hides which are often softer to start. In addition, the leather often has no protective finish or a light natural one. This is to keep the leather as soft as possible, unlike other leathers, which may feel waxy or oily.
What We’ll Explore
- Clearing up Myths & Misconceptions
- History of Nappa Leather
- Nappa Leather Characteristics Quick Reference Table
- In-depth Characteristics of Nappa Leather
- Pros of Nappa Leather
- Cons of Nappa Leather
- How Nappa Leather is Made
- Production Stats for Nappa Leather
- Cost of Nappa Leather
- When You Might Leathercraft with Nappa Leather
- Tips for Leathercrafting With Nappa Leather
- Examples of Goods Made from Nappa Leather
- My Personal Research on Nappa Leather
- Nappa Leather Care & Maintenance
- Helpful Insights on Nappa Leather
- Key Takeaways
Clearing Up Myths & Misconceptions
The term “nappa” in leather often creates a lot of confusion. Many will often incorrectly label any soft hide as a nappa leather as a marketing term. Although nappa leather shares the same chrome tanned method, one distinct difference exists.
In proper definition, nappa leather must have a light finishing coat or no finish at all. This is an important difference as the lack of finish changes how nappa leather wears. With this common misnaming, it is often best to speak directly with the tannery to determine how they make their nappa leather.
History of Nappa Leather
In 1875 Emanuel Manasse created nappa leather in Napa, California. Manasse, the son of a tanner, emigrated from Germany and began working at the Sawyer Tanning Company, where he would later become a partner. He was passionate about glove making and strived to create the perfect leather.
Manasse changed the tanning process to create soft, supple, and high-quality leather, incorporating chromium salts into his tannage. While today this is the most common method for tanning leather, at the time this was a groundbreaking change. Manasse used chromium to break down the leather fibers, achieving his goal.
Nappa Leather Characteristics Quick Reference Table
|Natural or Synthetic
|Available Thickness (oz/mm)
|1–5 ounces (.4mm to 2mm)
|Largest Workable Size
|25 square feet
|Ease of Maintenance (1–10)
|How Long it Lasts (Daily Use)
|Cost per Square Foot ($)
|$3–$7 per square foot
|Ease of Crafting (1–10)
|Rarity (Common or Exotic)
|Annual Production Volume
|2 billion square feet
|Biggest Exporting Country
|Biggest Importing Country
In-depth Characteristics of Nappa Leather
Natural or Synthetic
Nappa leather is a completely natural leather that uses calf, lamb, and kidskin hides, which gives the leather a softer feel. Nappa leather uses chromium tannage, a chemical method for tanning leather. Nappa leather also tends to have a light or no finishing coat added to it. This keeps the leather feeling soft instead of waxy, oily, or like plastic.
The surface texture of nappa leather is not influenced by the production methods. Nappa leather can be completely smooth, pebbled, or add additional embossing to the surface. Another factor of the texture is the hides the leather comes from. Lamb and kidskin have a small grainy texture throughout the surface that can feel slightly pebbled.
Since nappa leather is made from smaller younger animals such as calfs, lambs, and kids, the leather is not as thick as others. Typically nappa leather will be around 1–5 ounces (.4mm to 2mm), a perfect weight for garments and bags. When needing more thickness, the leather can easily be lined with a fabric or other leather to help provide more structure.
Largest Workable Size
Similar to the thickness, the size of nappa leather is often hindered by the hides used. While calf nappa leather can be as large as 25 square feet, the lamb and kidskin will often be around 8 square feet. When crafting large projects out of nappa leather, checking the dimensions needed due to the potentially small hides carefully is suggested.
Nappa leather was invented to be the perfect glove leather with excellent flexibility. The chrome tannage helps break down the leather fibers, while the hides chosen are naturally less rigid to begin with. Since nappa leather is often thin, this also helps keep the leather as flexible as possible, making nappa leather a great choice for garments or soft-sided bags.
The softness of nappa leather is what makes the leather famous. From the hide choice to the tanning method, each step when making nappa leather ensures the softest hide possible. In addition, nappa leather traditionally does not have a finishing coat, allowing the softness of the leather to be unhindered by added waxes or oils.
While currently, chrome tanning is the most popular method for tanning leather, what separates nappa leather from other soft leathers is the natural finish and the young hides used.
Sewing nappa leather is one of the most significant downsides of working with it. The thin leather often creates large holes when attempting to punch through the material. When sewing, the leather will flop around if not secured by something.
In addition, the thread tension must be carefully managed to avoid bunching the leather together. The thinness of the leather may also prevent slanted stitching on both sides unless a perfect technique is implemented. K. Phebe, P.Thanikaivelan, K. Krishnaraj, and B. Chandrasekaran, from the Centre for Leather Apparel & Accessories Development, Central Leather Research Institute, in Chennai, India, researched the sewing efficiency of nappa leather.
Since the leather is often thin and soft, there are often concerns about the strength of the leather. This research shows the leather remains durable, despite holes being made for sewing. They rated the leather high in relation to other fabrics.
Nappa leather’s durability often comes into question as it uses thin leather and sometimes has no protective finish. For many cases, however, this is a non-issue. The chromium tanning method provides a more durable and waterproof surface. In addition, the hides used for nappa leather are reliable. Although nappa leather is not hard-wearing, it can still be used without fear of failure.
Ease of Maintenance
Since nappa is a chrome tannage leather, general maintenance of items made from it will be easier. Chrome tanned leathers have natural water-resistant properties that will help keep the leather free from damage. The leather will still require periodical cleanings and conditioning but will otherwise require less maintenance than many other types of leather.
Lifespan With Daily Use
Although nappa leather is thin, it is still quite durable due to the tanning method used. It is common for daily-use items to last decades when well maintained. However, if leather items made from nappa leather only see favorable use, they can easily become heirloom pieces, able to be passed on for generations for others to love as well.
Nappa leather is chrome tanned, providing a great surface for accepting dyes. This opens the possibility to endless colors and patterns. In addition, the saturation of the colors is excellent, creating bright vibrant shades and soft pastels. However, the most common colors for nappa leather are black browns and various other earth tones.
Nappa leather has varying water resistance properties depending on if the leather has a protective finish. While all nappa leather will have some water protection from the chromium tannage used, those without a finish are more susceptible to water saturation. Typically true nappa leather will retain an open pore design, being less water resistant, and quickly soaking in moisture.
Although nappa leather is considered luxurious and is used in many high-end products, it is quite affordable. Hides can be purchased for around $3–$7 per square foot. This is due to the chromium tannage, a cost-effective way to produce leather, allowing companies to sell leather at a much lower price when compared to other tanning methods despite using high-quality animal hides.
Ease of Crafting
Crafting with nappa leather may present a few challenges due to the thinness and softness of the material. The main concern is stretching, affecting cutting, edge beveling, and skiving. Working with nappa leather will require any blade to be razor sharp to provide clean results.
In addition, sewing the floppy leather will also provide a challenge. A too-tight thread tension will cause the leather to bunch together.
Rarity (Common or Exotic)
Nappa leather is a common chromium-type leather, the most popular method for tanning. While not all chrome tanned leathers are nappa leather, its popularity in the fashion and furniture industry makes it quite common.
With around 2 billion square feet of nappa leather produced annually, this material may be easily found in many products. Similarly, hobbyists looking to buy the material should have no issues finding nappa leather.
Pros of Nappa Leather
Nappa leather is advertised and used as luxurious leather for many goods. Its claim to fame is undoubtedly due to the silky feel of the leather; however, this special leather offers much more.
- Wear resistance for its thinness
- Offered in a variety of colors
- Made from high-quality hides
Cons of Nappa Leather
Despite its great qualities, nappa leather has a few drawbacks. Some, such as longevity, affect all items made from this leather. However, most drawbacks are potential crafting issues.
- Only offers a thin protective coating, if any
- Small hides for crafting
- Stretches during cutting, edge beveling, and skiving
- May stain easily
- Does not patina
- Will require alternative edge finishing methods
How Nappa Leather is Made
While all leather comes from animals, nappa leather specifically uses young ones. Calves, lambs, and kids are the top choices for this leather. These hides are harvested, salted for preservation, and shipped to a tannery to be processed. At the tannery, the hides are cleaned, scraped, and put into a drum with chromium salts and other tanning agents.
At this point, the hide will become what we know as leather. Once the newly made leather is removed from the drums, they can be dyed. In nappa leather’s case, they are added to a different vat containing the colors to penetrate the leather fully.
While leather typically goes through a final finishing process, nappa leather often forgoes this step in favor of a softer-feeling leather. Those that do add a protective finish will use a very light one to prevent changing the feeling of the leather.
In this helpful video provided by Kevin Gillan, the types of leather finished are explained, showing why unfinished leather, like nappa leather, may have issues with staining compared to other leathers.
Production Statistics of Nappa Leather
- Volume per year – 2 billion square feet
- Key countries where it is produced – India, Vietnam, Italy
- Biggest exporting country – India
- Biggest importing country – Germany
Cost of Nappa Leather
- Square Foot – $3–$7 per square foot
- ½ Hide – $12–$50
- Full Hide – $24–$100
When You Might Leathercraft With Nappa Leather
- Projects requiring a thin, flexible leather
- Making soft, pleasant-to-touch items
- Requiring an affordable yet luxurious leather
Tips for Leathercrafting With Nappa Leather
- Always use sharp cutting tools, including an edge beveler.
- Keep workspace clean to avoid possible staining.
- Use edge paint or other edge finishing methods to protect the raw edges.
Some Examples of Items Made From Nappa Leather
My Personal Research on Nappa Leather
Although plenty of nappa leather is made annually, searching for it online may lead to more questions than answers. To help distinguish nappa leather from others, I compared what companies offer against what leatherworkers think the leather should be.
The two main companies I looked at were The Hide House and BuyLeatherOnline. The Hide House is located in Napa, California, while BuyLeatherOnline is an international business offering Italian leather worldwide.
When searching through The Hide House’s leather, they listed a couple of pieces as nappa leather, pig skin and cowhide. While these animals aren’t typical of nappa leather, they were thin, under 3 ounces, and described as flexible. The nappa leather they offered also had a pigmented finish. This change may help provide a more uniform finish and durability.
BuyLeatherOnline has a whole nappa leather section with information about the leather type on its website. They describe nappa as soft, silky leather with an aniline finish to keep the leather light.
In addition, they cover some of the history of the term, including how it has changed from small lambskins to full cowhides due to its use in upholstery. Looking through their catalog of goods, they seem to follow both definitions, listing large cowhides and smaller animals as nappa leather. They also include a few embossed nappa hides, which I’ve never seen before.
When researching nappa leather, there was a lot of different information regarding the specifics of it. Many focused on its use in the automotive industry, larger cowhides. After searching through various forums, I found some common ground. Softness and flexibility were the two most discussed features of a nappa leather hide.
The rest of the qualities seemed to be on a person-by-person basis. Some believed only small animals, such as calves, lambs, and kids, could be nappa leather, while others pointed to full cows and even deer. Similarly, there was not a singular answer for the finishing method. Some suggested a light finish, while others acknowledged the need for a uniform and durable look, as seen in upholstery.
A popular response I came across is that the term nappa leather has lost its meaning over time. They discussed the changes in hides, grain correction, and finishing methods over time and provided examples of leather that would fit the definition of “nappa,” not including it in their description.
After looking through these various sources of information, I came to the partial conclusion that nappa leather is hard to define. The term means a lot of different things to people and companies, to the point where it is often not even included. When buying nappa, I advise you to determine the qualities you expect and find a reputable source that provides exactly that.
Nappa Leather Care and Maintenance
How To Clean Nappa Leather
To clean nappa leather, starting with a horsehair brush is always best. This will remove most of the dust and debris without needing leather soap. However, leather soap can be used if the leather requires a more thorough cleaning.
To do so, small amounts of the soap can be placed onto a small cloth, rubbed into the leather, and left to dry. Testing any leather soaps before applying them to the surface is always important to see how they may affect the leather.
How To Condition Nappa Leather
When periodically cleaning nappa leather, it should be done after the item has been dusted with a horsehair brush. This prevents the surface from having dirt or debris rubbed into it. Leather conditioner can then be applied with a clean cloth, rubbing in circles in small amounts to coat the area completely.
Nappa leather should quickly draw in all leather conditioner, allowing any excess to be wiped off. Much like leather soap, the conditioner used should be tested before use.
How To Store Nappa Leather
Since nappa leather’s surface can be delicate, properly storing it is ideal for keeping it in good condition. Ideally, any item that can be placed in a dust bag should be, as it protects from any unwanted elements.
However, simply storing the leather in a dark temperature environment is enough. The biggest concern is keeping the leather free from moisture. The porous surface of the leather will often draw in all moisture, so it must be in a relatively dry environment.
Helpful Insights on Nappa Leather
Is Nappa leather real leather?
Yes, nappa leather is real leather. It is made from the hides of calves, lambs, and kids. These are all common animals used for leather. Nappa leather is chrome tanned; however, which is a chemical tanning method that may seem artificial to some, despite being real leather.
Is Nappa leather good quality leather?
Yes, although it is chrome tanned rather than vegetable tanned leather, nappa leather specifically chooses high-quality hides for tannage. Nappa leather often leaves the surface of the leather untouched and therefore requires leather with little to no blemishes.
What animal is Nappa leather made from?
Nappa leather can be made from various animals, but the three most traditional ones are calves, lambs, and kids. While adult cows are sometimes used to make nappa leather, purists would not consider the leather authentic. The benefit of the young animals are a softer, more pliable skin with fewer blemishes.
Is Napa leather expensive?
Although nappa is well known, and often considered a luxury leather, it is not expensive. The leather is more affordable than many others at around $3–$7 per square foot. This is due to the chromium tanning method, which can produce more cost-efficient leather.
Is Nappa leather better than genuine leather?
There is no best leather. Genuine leather can range from bonded to full grain leather, so the term often has little meaning. If the quality of the genuine leather is determined, then typically, nappa leather would be higher quality than bonded and split leather.
Does Nappa leather crack?
Yes, nappa leather can still crack like other leathers when it is not properly maintained. Ideally, the leather must be conditioned periodically to keep it hydrated. Cracking occurs when leather dries out and loses flexibility, causing the leather to crack instead of bend.
How can you tell real Nappa leather?
It may be difficult to tell if nappa leather is real without help from manufacturing information. Some key traits of nappa leather include soft, supple, chrome tanned, thin, and little to no finish. While these may assist in identifying the leather, many types of chrome tanned leathers will also have these qualities, making it nearly impossible for an untrained eye to spot the real nappa leather.
- Nappa leather is extremely soft and supple, giving it a luxurious touch.
- Although high quality, nappa hides can be an affordable price.
- Crafting with nappa leather may differ from other leathers due to how much it may stretch.
Oftentimes in leather craft, we look for opportunities to allow our projects to shine. Nappa leather gives crafters that option by making leather feel more luxurious. This encourages customers to fall in love with our work, matching the talent crafters put in with a leather that is sure to impress.
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