When I was inexperienced with leather, there were a few defining characteristics I was looking for. I didn’t know about tannage or hide type. What drew me to leather was the way it felt. I would run my hands across various products until finding a soft leather that felt velvety.
Soft leather is any hide that feels supple or velvety to the touch. They are found in any tannage, but most commonly chromium tanned or suede. Since many initial impressions of leather are through touch, soft leather can make products stand out. Soft leather costs start at $4 per square foot.
Soft leather can benefit the final look of any item but may not suit all projects well. Let’s look at soft leathers in depth to find where they may work best.
What Is Soft Leather?
Soft leather is any supple hide and may be velvety to the touch. It can be made from any animal and tanned using any tannin type. Chromium tanned leather, suede, and leather from young animals are most popular when producing soft leather.
While a leather’s softness is not a final indicator of its quality, it can be a good sign when it feels excessively soft. This may be especially true if the leather is thick or vegetable tanned, as it must be processed further to add that characteristic.
What We’ll Explore
- Clearing up Myths & Misconceptions
- History of Soft Leather
- Soft Leather Characteristics Quick Reference Table
- In-depth Characteristics of Soft Leather
- Pros of Soft Leather
- Cons of Soft Leather
- How Soft Leather is Made
- Production Stats for Soft Leather
- Cost of Soft Leather
- When You Might Leathercraft with Soft Leather
- Tips for Leathercrafting With Soft Leather
- Examples of Goods Made from Soft Leather
- My Personal Research on Soft Leather
- Soft Leather Care & Maintenance
- Helpful Insights on Soft Leather
- Key Takeaways
Clearing Up Myths & Misconceptions
Most people will jump to chromium tanned leathers or suede when discussing soft leather. While both these leathers are often softer than vegetable tanned leathers, this is not always the case. Plenty of vegetable tanned hides and other animals, such as deerskin, have been “milled” to soften them.
If someone is looking for soft leather, they can expand their search to these products as they offer both the softness of chromium tanned leather and the benefits of vegetable tanned leather, making for a great feeling piece that will develop a patina over time.
History of Soft Leather
With the early tanning methods of using tree bark and plant leaves as tannins, the leather produced was extremely stiff. At this time, those making the leather would often have to massage and knead the material to soften it. Even those preserving leather with animal fats had similar issues.
Then In 1858, chromium tanning was invented by German technologists Friedrich Knapp and Hylten Cavalin. This was a revolutionary change as the process broke down the fibers much better than vegetable tanning, resulting in a softer, more supple leather. It quickly became one of the most popular leathers when combined with stretching and other methods to break in the material.
Soft Leather Characteristics Quick Reference Table
|Natural or Synthetic
|Available Thickness (oz/mm)
|Typically below 4oz (1.6mm), but can be any thickness
|Largest Workable Size
|25 square feet
|Ease of Maintenance (1–10)
|How Long it Lasts (Daily Use)
|Cost per Square Foot ($)
|Starts at $5 per square foot
|Ease of Crafting (1–10)
|Rarity (Common or Exotic)
|Annual Production Volume
|Over 10 billion square feet
|Biggest Exporting Country
|Biggest Importing Country
In-depth Characteristics of Soft Leather
Natural or Synthetic
Since soft leather is purely a characteristic, it can be a quality of both natural and synthetic leather. While typically faux leathers are not as soft as animal hides, there have been developments to change that, with companies now offering alternative leather materials that are as supple and soft as animal leathers.
The surface texture of soft leather can be anything. Since softness is just one characteristic of this type of leather, the surface texture often does not matter. This means soft leather can be embossed with various animal textures or pebbled grain. However, the softest leather will be smooth with a natural surface.
Since thickness may play a role in the softness of the leather; soft leather is often under 4oz (1.6mm). By using animal hides that are already thin, the leather can become much more supple and create a velvety feel. Soft leather is not limited by thickness, though; even a thick piece of leather can be treated as soft compared to other hides.
Largest Workable Size
Typically, the softest leathers will use young animals under 10 square feet, but this does not limit soft leather. Full cowhides may be soft, resulting in large 25-square-foot hides being available as soft leather. The softness mainly comes from how the leather is processed rather than the animal’s size.
Soft leather and flexibility often go hand in hand. The leather becomes soft as the fibers of the leather are broken down. The leather becomes more flexible since the fibers become less stiff during this process. Therefore soft leather is often the most flexible leather available to purchase, with thin, soft leather being extremely flexible and well-suited for garments or other items where movement should not be restricted.
Unsurpringlying, soft leather is soft. However, looking further into it, a hide can achieve various “levels” of softness. While most chromium tanned leathers will be softer than vegetable tanned, suede or nubuck will be even softer. The softest leathers, however, come from young animals. Their thinner skin gives the leather a buttery soft feeling, with fewer fibers to break down.
Sewability is one area that all soft leathers struggle with. While each hide will behave differently, soft leathers must more carefully manage thread tension and stretch when making holes. This is more prominent in thinner soft leathers but is also found in thick, soft leathers. In addition, large pieces of soft leather may flop around when sewn, making the process more tedious.
Most soft leathers will have comparable durability to any other leather hide. However, there are a couple of reasons why they may be weaker. Some soft leathers are made from thinner hides to make the leather more supple, limiting the thickness and causing it to wear faster. In addition, some soft leather will forgo a finishing coat to enhance the softness, exposing the leather to more wear.
Ease of Maintenance
Soft leather is very simple to maintain, requiring periodic cleaning and conditioning. The best way to keep the leather looking its best is to use a horsehair brush to wipe dust and debris off.
This will simultaneously build up a small amount of polish, helping the leather stand out. It is important to note that soft leather may more easily form creases. Therefore, when using or storing any soft leather, it should not be folded or crumpled.
Lifespan with Daily Use
At a minimum, soft leather can last 20 years when well maintained. This estimate is for thin, soft leathers with no finish and may significantly increase with thicker leather. While thicker leather may not be as soft, it is often dense, slowing the wear rate. In addition, when a protective coating is added, the leather may become more water and wear-resistant.
Since most soft leathers are chromium tanned; they can accept dye more easily. This means most soft leathers can be made in any wild color or pattern a tannery wishes to make. However, if the soft leather is vegetable tanned, the colors available will be limited, often offering earth tones, natural, and black.
The amount of water resistance a soft leather has depends on several factors. While no leather is truly waterproof, chromium tanned soft leathers will do a decent job; vegetable tanned ones will not. In addition to the tannage, the finishing used on any soft leather can greatly benefit how resistant it is. A heavily waxed finish will perform better than an aniline finish, regardless of the tanning method.
Since many soft leathers are chromium tanned, they are often budget-friendly, starting at around $4 per square foot. While prices may commonly be low, soft leather can quickly become a pricey material depending on the animal and tannery. Well-known soft leathers, or milled vegetable tanned leathers, may cost $15 per square foot or more.
Ease of Crafting
Soft leather has its pros and cons for crafting. The softness of the leather may also make it stretchy, making it more difficult to cut or sew without any issues. Thread tension must be managed to prevent the leather from bunching together.
On the other hand, soft leather is versatile. It can be used for bags, garments, and other projects requiring little structure. In addition, the leather can be combined with stiffer leather to add firmness to other projects. The soft leather will also be easier to pass needles through while sewing.
Rarity (Common or Exotic)
With chromium tanning being the most popular leather-making method, soft leather is extremely common. One will have no issue purchasing soft leather in various animal hides, colors, and thicknesses. With an estimated 10 billion square feet of soft leather produced annually, it is seen as used in most items made from leather.
Pros of Soft Leather
With soft leather being one of the most popular types of leather produced, both crafters and consumers have found reasons to enjoy it.
- Feels soft and supple
- Can come in a wide variety of colors
- Great for garments and bags
- Can be made from various animals
- Perfect material for lining projects
Since many of the initial impressions of leather are through touch, soft leather can make products stand out.
Cons of Soft Leather
Although soft leather is popular and seen in many everyday objects, it still has flaws. While issues are more commonly seen on the crafter’s side, consumers may want to consider the following points.
- Soft leather can stretch a lot.
- Most soft leather can not patina due to chromium tanning.
- May bunch together when being sewn
- When thinner hides are used, it has a softer lifespan.
- Can easily crease when improperly stored
How Soft Leather is Made
Soft leather often starts with hide selection. Young animals with thinner hides are often preferred as they produce the softest leather. Although unnecessary, any hide can be used to make soft leather. When the hides arrive at a tannery, they must be washed and scraped, removing the preserving salts, dirt, and excess fat.
They are then added to a large rotating vat with the tannery’s proprietary chromium tannage mixture. This mix will penetrate the leather, preserving it and breaking down the fibers. The rotation of the vat will beat the hide, similarly softening the fibers. When finished, the hides are stretched and dried.
Once dried, the leather is ready for the final steps. It will be dyed to the desired color and have a finish sprayed onto it if the tannery wishes. Another way a tannery might soften the leather is by moving the finished leather with their hands. This action helps break in the leather before it is shipped for sale.
Jinwei Zhang, Changlong Zhang, Jiacheng Wu, and Wuyong Chen, from the National Engineering Laboratory for Clean Technology of Leather Manufacture, in Chengdu, China, have researched a way to create even softer leather. Much of the stiffness generated from tanning is due to the drying process. They tested using microwave drying, which does not damage the leather, and more evenly dried it for a softer finish.
Production Statistics of Soft Leather
- Volume per year – Over 10 billion square feet
- Key countries where it is produced – China, India, Vietnam, Italy, and Brazil
- Biggest exporting country – India
- Biggest importing country – India
Cost of Soft Leather
- Square foot – $4–$15
- ½ Hide – $40–$150
- Full Hide – $60–$300
When You Might Leathercraft With Soft Leather
Crafting with soft leather can be a great choice for projects that require a more flexible and pliable material. Here are some situations when someone might want to craft with soft leather:
- When creating soft items such as garments or bags
- When looking for a versatile yet budget-friendly leather
- When adding a lining to a project
Check out this informative video by Claridge Leather, looking at different leather types for projects and showing how soft leather can be utilized in a workshop compared to firmer leather.
Tips for Leathercrafting With Soft Leather
Leathercrafting with soft leather requires some specific techniques and considerations due to the material’s pliability and delicate nature. Here are some tips to help you work with soft leather effectively:
- Always cut the leather with a sharp blade to prevent stretching.
- Manage thread tension to prevent the leather from bunching.
- Avoid folding or crumpling soft leather, as it may crease easily.
Some Examples of Items Made From Soft Leather
There are numerous items made from soft leather due to its pliability and comfort. Here are some common examples of items crafted using soft leather:
My Personal Research on Soft Leather
With soft leather being a highly desirable type of leather, many people will own an item made from it. These pieces will see a range of usage but ultimately test how the leather holds up. To research, I decided to find out and put my softest leather through some stress tests.
The leather I used for all my tests was a lambskin with an aniline finish. It had no rigidity and was around 3oz (1.2mm) thick.
For many, wrinkles are a concern as they will have garments, gloves, or bags made from soft leather. To test how soft leather behaves, I simply took the hide and balled it up tightly. A few creases appeared, but none lasted after stretching the leather out.
However, when I first ordered this hide, it came folded. This left huge creases throughout the folds and required me to iron them out. Lasting wrinkles are possible but will most likely occur during improper storage rather than use.
Softness Over Time
Like any other item, soft leather will wear over time and can impact the desirable qualities it was originally purchased for. If soft leather becomes stiff, paying extra in some cases may not be worth it.
Thankfully, I had used this hide type in the past as a soft interior for a bag I crafted for a friend. I was able to do a firsthand comparison. Although the bag is only around seven months old, there were some changes. Surprisingly the interior became even softer than the original hide. It had darkened and accumulated colored spots from use but felt broken in.
While most of the leather felt softer, the areas with scratches felt noticeably worse. I would run my hand across the surface, only to get caught on these rough patches. As a bag interior, I understand scratches from keys, a cell phone, or any other item will occur; however, it’s a key point for those looking to purchase soft leather.
The rough patches on the bag made me wonder how the leather holds up to wear. I wanted to see if any small mark made a difference or if it needed heavy wear to cause a change in softness.
I lightly scratched the leather with my fingers, leaving slight discoloration behind. These marks could be felt but were also quickly addressed by rubbing the area, completely negating any wear that had occurred.
To step this up, I started using varying sandpaper grits beginning at #500. With the sandpaper, I would make three passes across the leather and then touch it to see if there was a permanent change in softness.
- With #500 grit, there was little to no change. The area looked duller as some color was removed, but it felt similar to the hide.
- At #250, there was noticeable wear. The passes left much deeper scratches that could be felt, which felt similar to the damaged areas of the bag.
- At #120, there was a lot of wear. The whole area felt much rougher, and it started to wear through the surface and into the fibrous underlayer.
While this type of damage is uncommon and similar to rubbing leather against a brick wall, it is important to note the damage.
Unlike many other materials that slowly lose their softness over time, soft leather stays soft. This type of leather is resistant to many common worries when purchasing a soft leather item. It does not wrinkle, age poorly, or lose its softness easily. When taken care of, soft leather will continue to impress for years to come.
Soft Leather Care and Maintenance
How To Clean Soft Leather
Cleaning soft leather starts with a thorough dusting by using a horsehair brush to get deep into the fibers of the leather. Once finished, a leather soap may be used to help break down any grime and restore the leather. With a clean, damp cloth, apply a small amount of leather soap onto the material, building up a lather that will cover the entire surface. Allow the leather to dry before applying a leather conditioner to the item.
How To Condition Soft Leather
When conditioning soft leather, a good, trusted leather conditioner should be used. After wiping any dust or debris from the leather, a clean cloth may be used to apply small amounts of conditioner. The conditioner is best applied in a circular motion, fully covering the leather and allowing ample time for the product to seep into the surface.
How To Store Soft Leather
Soft leather should be stored unrolled when possible. Soft leather will develop creases easily and should not be bent or distorted in any way during storage. In addition, the leather should be kept away from sunlight and in a temperature-controlled environment to protect the leather from drying out or growing mold due to moisture.
Helpful Insights on Soft Leather
What is a soft leather called?
Soft leather may often be called “napa” leather. Although this term was once reserved for lightweight leather with no finishing added, it has more recently become a catch-all. Therefore when leather is listed as “napa” or “nappa,” it will be a soft, supple leather.
What’s the difference between leather and soft leather?
The only true difference between soft leather and other leathers is the process it undergoes to become soft. This will most likely be a mixture of thin hides and a chromium tanning process that breaks down the fibers of the leather, making it less stiff. Otherwise, soft leather has many of the same qualities as other leathers.
What is soft thin leather called?
Soft, thin leather is often called “napa” or “Nappa” leather. These are often leathers that use young animals such as claves or lambs, along with a chromium tanning to produce an exceptionally supple leather. However, “napa” is a catch-all term that may also be used to refer to thicker hides.
Is soft leather genuine leather?
Yes, although the softness of a leather hide may make it feel artificial, it will still be made from animal leather. A high-quality tannage and a young supple hide may create this effect. However, if the soft leather comes from an animal, it is still real leather.
Is soft leather good quality?
Soft leather can be good quality and is often a sign of a well-treated hide. Since leather with a softer feel is more desirable, tanneries will attempt to make them as soft as possible. Despite this, the softness of the leather should not be used to determine the quality of the leather. While it may hint at a higher quality leather, it may still be low quality, so other factors must be used to determine quality.
Is soft leather high quality?
While there is no guarantee that soft leather is high quality, it is often a good sign. Soft leather often has more care to make the material feel more luxurious. However, it is very possible for soft leather to be low quality and should not be used as a final gauge of quality.
Does soft leather scratch easily?
Soft leather does not change the scratch-resistant qualities of leather. Soft leather may be easily scratched or scratch resistant. This will mainly depend on the finishing method used when making soft leather.
- Soft leather can be any tannage type but is mainly chrome tanned or suede.
- The softness of leather should not be used as a final gauge of its quality.
- Soft leather excels in projects that rely on flexibility.
Crafters and consumers agree that soft leather is a defining part of the industry. Soft leather offers a luxurious feel to a durable material, providing the best of both worlds. The popularity of this leather is well deserved, and it will continue to be a favorite for decades.
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