Leather has been made and used for thousands of years. The oldest, and most common type of leather for much of that time is vegetable tanned leather.
Vegetable tanned leather is leather tanned with tannins (naturally occurring astringents) from plants and bark. The process can take from 2-30 days, and results in a stiff, strong, light yellow/brown colored leather. It is most often used in saddlery, luggage, tooling leather, sheaths, and belts.
With so many possibilities for its use, lets explore how it might be great for one of your next projects or purchases.
What is Vegetable Tanned Leather?
Vegetable tanned leather is a type of leather made using natural materials. It can also be be referred to as veg tan leather, or even tanned leather. Generally, natural materials used to make this leather are tannins (naturally occurring astringents) from plants and bark. In raw hides, the tannins bind to the collagen, covering them. This makes them less susceptible to bacterial growth, less water soluble, and more flexible/pliable.
The vegetable tanning process can, depending on the specific type of process used, take anywhere from 2 days in the accelerated process, up to 30 days or more in the standard process. It is usually carried out in large pits, or in large rotating drums which help agitate the leather within the tannin solution. The hides are exposed to stronger and stronger levels of the tannins throughout the process. Some of the barks used to extract tannins used in this process include:
The tanning process transforms the hides into finished leathers that can then be used in leather goods. The colors that vegetable tanning produces can vary from yellows to shades of brown and even some reds. Since it is a more natural process, the results can be unique and often quite pleasing. The leather produced from vegetable tanning while softer than a raw hide, is still relatively strong and a bit stiff.
Here is a helpful video showing vegetable tanned leather up close:
History of Vegetable Tanned Leather
Veg tanned leather Leather has been used for thousands of years as a protective and useful material. Man has often used as many parts of animals as possible for survival and to develop tools for easier, and better living. Leather footwear, for example, allowed for easier walking and exploring.
As man evolved and societies built up, so did the uses for leather. Its applications would grow into leather armor, boots, satchels, tents, writing surfaces, harnesses, and jewelry. In some cultures leather was seen as a symbol of high status. Leather craft was becoming about both function, and visual appeal.
It is believed that the vegetable tanning process was developed by the Greeks around 800 BC. It possibly could have begun in Egypt, and the knowledge refined further. Rome would later adopt similar practices.
Veg tanning was the main process for leather production up until about 1858. In that year, chromium tanning was invented and enabled leather to be produced faster, thinner, and softer. All of those qualities were good for the leather industry.
This would be the beginning of a major shift in leather tanning methods. Over time, chrome tanned leather would rise in popularity and eventually overtake vegetable tanned leathers in overall production volume. As of the early 2000’s, only about 10% of tanned leather is vegetable tanned.
How is Vegetable Tanned Leather Made?
Vegetable tanned leather follows the typical leather tanning process. Click here view another article I wrote exploring all of those fascinating steps. In summary, it includes:
First, the hides need to be “cured”, or preserved. A leather piece begins as the recently skinned animal hide. In this state, it can very quickly begin to degrade and decompose within only about 5 hours due to bacterial growth.
Curing can be done by sun drying, freezing, dry salting, and wet salting. Sun drying was the most popular method for thousands of years.
Once the cured hides arrive at the tanner, they are sorted and trimmed. Hides in this step are sorted for a few factors, including weight and quality. It is important to know what a hide will ultimately be used for, to ensure early on that a hide has the potential and qualities to meet the need.
Also, hides are trimmed as this step to remove any unnecessary or extremely damaged portions. This helps ensure that only the necessary and valuable pieces go through the future processing steps.
Scraps and trimmings can either be discarded, or reused for other less refined processing needs.
Before soaking, the raw hides are salted and very stiff, which as a result helps prevent them from growing bacteria and molding. Though, they’re also not very usable or pliable in this state. Soaking, done in water, allows the salts to be removed, and moisture from the water enter back into the hide. This allows for pliability and further treatment during tanning.
Washing is usually done in very large vats or rotating drums, with high volume of leather for efficiency. Once washed, in this state, they are very wet, pliable, and ready for the next step.
The liming step introduces methods to help remove a lot of the organic substances that might still be part of the hide. These will not be needed later in the processing, or desirable in the final product. Mainly, these include the epidermis, roots of the hair, and additional undesired fats and soluble protein.
During liming, the hides are in large vats or bins, similar to those used in washing. Liming also raises the alkalinity of the hides to a PH of about 12. If preferred for some hides to keep the hair on them, the skin side is treated with a compound that will help to clean and remove hair from that side specifically, leaving the hair-side intact.
5. Fleshing/Unhairing (Scudding)
Once limed, the hide is now ready for removal of undesired parts. They have been weakened by the liming process, and unhairing can begin. This is usually done mechanically by machines, rollers, and blades. It can also be done using hand tools and scraping/scudding. The manual way is a very labor-intensive process.
At this point, the hide is very well cleaned, prepared, and all that remains is the most quality part that will be further refined and turned into leather in the tanning process.
6. Bating (Deliming and Buffering)
At this step of the leather tanning process, the PH is brought down to a lower level using buffering salts. Buffering essentially reverses the effects of the previously performed liming process, hence the reference to deliming.
Vegetable tanning is usually carried out in large pits, or in large rotating drums which help agitate the leather within the tannin solution. The hides are exposed to stronger and stronger levels of the tannins throughout the process.
After tanning, the hides are dried. Generally, this is done either by pressing the leather through large, heavy rollers, to push out the moisture.
It can also be done via vacuum suction through large steel plates, setup in specialized machinery.
Splitting is the longitudinal cutting of leather (the thickness of it) into thinner layers. Also, each hide has several natural layers to it. This needs to be factored in when splitting. A splitting machine with rollers and blades is used to slice the thick hides into several layers based on preference.
Once split, hides can undergo even further refinement of thickness, through shaving. Shaving removes thinner volumes of leather than cutting.
In order to produce the wide array of pleasing leather appearances, they are often colored, dyed, or bleached. Dyes can be water soluble or oil based, where the water soluble dyes generally have better material penetration and go deep into the fibers.
Fatliquoring is the application of lubricants to the leather to make it stronger and more flexible. Many different types of substances can be applied during Fatliquiring, depending on the desired qualities of the finished leather. They can include mineral oils, natural fats, synthetic fats, and synthetic oils.
In processes where air drying will be used, the hides are now ready to be set out to dry. After setting, the hides are dried. This is generally done mechanically by pressing the leather through large, heavy rollers, to push out the moisture. It can also be done via vacuum suction through large steel plates, setup in specialized machinery.
In this step, conditioners are applied to the leather. This helps them retain some helpful moisture and oils that will keep the leather healthy, flexible, and supple over time.
15. Staking/Dry Milling
Staking is a lot like tenderizing meat with a mallet. The leather is mechanically beaten to soften the texture. This helps turn it into a smoother, more supple material that is preferred for leather goods and accessories.
In order to create a more visually appealing grain side of the hide, as well as make it smoother to the touch, it is buffed. Buffing if performed with a sanding drum. This step leaves the grain side smooth, though also produces a lot of leather dust from the sanding.
17. Surface Pressing
This is where leather can really take on a different look and feel. During surface pressing, large machinery that utilizes rollers or presses can imprint a pattern into the leather. This creates a textured or patterned appearance on the surface.
The specific design within the surface press can also add performance qualities to the leather. For example, Saffiano leather is generally strong and scratch/abrasion resistant due to the pattern of pressed diagonal rows on the pressed leather. Click here to read about that unique process in a post I wrote.
Vachetta leather is another example of pressed leather. Click here to see how that is made in an article where I dive into the vachetta leather world.
18. Surface Finishing
Finishes are added to the leather that provide unique characteristics that protect it or enhance it’s wearability. These can include wax surface finishes, such as seen on Saffiano leather. The transparent wax makes the outer surface hard (scratch resistant), water resistant, and protects the leather and color underneath.
The pieces will be closely inspected through a quality control process at the tannery. Each will be given a grade. The piece is evaluated for quality and several factors including:
- Surface Properties
- Color/Pattern Consistency
- Overall Feel
- Overall Look
Once graded, the tanner knows the specific quality of the final piece. This allows it to be categorized properly when listed for sale.
Next, the graded leather hide is measured. This is to determine both how large the hide is, and how thick it is (in oz). Leather thicknesses can influence what the material will be used for in the end-product.
Wow, we’ve made it! All the way from fresh hide to finished veg tanned leather. Now let’s explore what we can do with it.
Vegetable Tanned Leather Qualities and Characteristics
Veg tanned leather is usually an unfinished material. As such, the surface of the tanned hide is exposed. With normal wear and exposure to air, moisture, and oils in the skin, the leather darkens over time.
This is mainly due to how it reacts with the substances it comes in contact with. The subtle contrast in tone near the most-handled areas often leads to a pleasant, darkened “patina” that is quite visually appealing. Sun and water are two of the most major influencers of color changes, and if one is not careful, staining.
In general veg tanned leather is stiff, and strong. Thicker cuts are very sturdy, while thinner cuts are very durable. When conditioned with oils and leather creams, veg tanned leather can become more soft and flexible. It is a great all-around, multipurpose, quintessential leather type.
However, since the surface is the exposed as the natural hide, it can also scratch very easily. As a benefit, the fibers of the natural hide do some level of “self-healing” over time. As the surface gets touched and brushed up against, the scratches tend to become less noticeable. Though, the material does show scratching more easily than leathers with a protective finish on them.
Vegetable Tanned Leather Color
The colors that vegetable tanning produces can vary from yellows, to shades of brown, and even some reds. Since it is a more natural process, the results can be unique and often quite pleasing.
Lighter, almost white colors are sometimes seen, based on the original colors of the hides. Bleaching hides is also an option that results in a very bright, white leather color.
A common trait of veg tanned leather is that the color will change over time. As it’s exposed to the elements and everyday use/wear, the colors will darken. If left out in the sun for extended periods (days), the color will first darken as the leather dries out and oils from within are drawn to the surface. Further time in the sun, and drying out, will result in a lightening as the moisture is removed.
Proper conditioning of leather is important to prevent drying/cracking to occur. Thus, when cleaning/conditioning veg tanned leather goods, the colors will usually darken a bit after they’re nourished with conditioners/oils.
Part of the experience of using a new veg tanned leather good is observing the patina develop over time. It’s as natural as the original leather hide and tanning process used to create it.
What is Vegetable Tanned Leather Used For?
Veg tanned leather can realistically be used across most leather working and leather craft applications. Depending on the weight of the leather used (click here to check out a handy guide to leather weights I put together), it can be a great choice for many leather goods.
Veg tan leather can be made into the common “types” of leather including full grain, top grain, genuine, split grain, and bonded leather.
It’s also a great choice for different leather working types. This includes sewing, stamping, embossing, tooling, carving, moulding, cutting, and riveting. It’s quite a versatile material. Here are some of the recommended uses:
|Vegetable Tanned Leather Common Uses
|1 – 2 oz
|Thinner wallets, watch bands, molding, shoes, thin purses, linings, bookmarks, boots, and small pouches
|2 – 3 oz
|Wallets, thicker watch bands, molding, thin purses, linings, boots, bookmarks, embossing, shoes, small pouches, light upholstery for chairs, couches, and other seating
|3 – 4 oz
|Thicker wallets, embossing, molding, smaller handbags and purses, boots, shoes, thin notebook covers, pouches, standard upholstery for chairs, couches, and other seating
|4 – 5 oz
|Boots, notebook covers, smaller knife sheathes, shoes, keychains, pouches, wrestling masks, light chaps, smaller handbags and purses, light aprons
|5 – 6 oz
|Boots, notebook covers, smaller knife sheathes, shoes, keychains, thicker pouches, thicker wrestling masks, chaps, smaller handbags and purses, light aprons
|6 – 7 oz
|Heavier boots, larger notebook covers, knife sheathes, shoes, keychains, thicker pouches, heavier chaps, handbags and purses, aprons, bags and duffels, carrying cases, thin belts, thin sword and bayonet scabbards, thin armor
|7 – 8 oz
|Heavier boots, large notebook covers, knife sheathes, light slings, thicker shoes, keychains, thicker pouches, sword and bayonet scabbards, typical handbags and purses, light pet collars, thin armor, thick aprons, bags and duffels, carrying cases, belts, light straps
|8 – 9 oz
|Heavier notebook covers, knife sheathes, slings, keychains, sword and bayonet scabbards, typical handbags and purses, armor, saddle bags, pet collars, bags and duffels, slings, carrying cases, belts, straps, holsters
|9 – 10 oz
|Knife sheathes, slings, keychains, sword and bayonet scabbards, larger handbags and purses, saddle bags, pet collars, armor, bags and duffels, slings, carrying cases, heavier belts, straps, holsters
|10 – 11 oz
|Heavy knife sheathes, slings, keychains, larger handbags and purses, saddle bags, pet collars, thicker bags and duffels, slings, thicker carrying cases, heavier belts, straps, holsters, light saddles, thicker armor
|11 – 12 oz
|Heavy knife sheathes, thicker slings, keychains, heavy handbags and purses, thick saddle bags, thick pet collars, thicker bags and duffels, heavy slings, thicker carrying cases, heavier belts, straps, holsters, light saddles, thicker armor
|12 – 13 oz
|Thicker slings, keychains, heavy handbags and purses, thick pet collars, heavy slings, thicker cases, heavier belts, thicker straps, holsters, typical saddles, thicker armor
|13 – 14 oz
|Heavy armor, light shoe soles, light machine belting, tack, light shoe heels, thick belts and straps, typical saddles
|14 – 15 oz
|Heavy armor, shoe soles, machine belting, heavy tack, shoe heels, thick belts and straps
|15 oz +
|Heavy armor, shoe soles, shoe heels, thick belts and straps
Vegetable Tanned Leather Pros & Cons
While it’s a great type of leather, let’s do a quick comparison of veg tanned leather pros and cons.
|Develops a nice patina over time
|Has a smooth feel to it
|Useful across most leather working types
|Can dry out
|Easy to work with
|Thicker weights tougher to work with
Popular Commercial Uses for Vegetable Tanned Leather
Veg tanned leather has become popularized by its use in some luxury handbag lines by leading fashion houses.
Louis Vuitton Vachetta Leather
One example is Louis Vuitton’s use of veg tanned leather in their “Vachetta” leather goods. They use high-quality, vegetable tanned calfskin in their handbag handbag handles, straps, trim, and accent pieces. To give it prestige, they refer to it as “Vachetta leather”. “Vachette” is the French word for calfskin. Click here for an article I wrote about why some folks love their leather so much.
Louis Vuitton Epi Leather
Another example, also from Louis Vuitton, is their Epi leather. It is a style of pressed leather made by stamping a pattern into vegetable tanned leather that is dyed, and finished with a water resistant, protective coating. The underlying strength of the veg tan hide, with the top layer protective coating makes it a very strong material. I spent some time writing about the durability, click here to dive into the world of Louis Vuitton leather.
How Does Vegetable Tanned Leather Age?
Veg tanned leather ages very well. Since it is a natural material, intended originally as a protective layer for an animal, it is relatively resilient for everyday use.
This type of leather can dry out over time and will need to be cleaned and conditioned. Though, if well cared-for, vegetable tanned leather can last for decades, even hundreds of years.
Also with age and use, veg tanned leather develops a nice, darkened color referred to as a “patina”. Since this usually happens around areas with the most handling/wear, the visual pattern is often a pleasant lightening to darkening from the less touched areas to the most touched areas. In areas not touched as often, the darkening will usually be an even tone. this natural aging is one of the qualities of veg tanned leather.
Is Vegetable Tanned Leather Waterproof?
Vegetable tanned leather, on its own, is not waterproof. Actually, water can stain the unfinished leather. So can oils from the hands, and anything dirty or grimy that gets into the fibers.
Like most leathers, some uses for veg tan leather involve being exposed to the elements, including rain and water. There are many options available for waterproofing vegetable tanned leather. They range from natural waxes to synthetic polymers. We’ll go into more about how to waterproof veg tan leather in the care and maintenance section below.
Vegetable Tanned Leather Care & Maintenance
It is important to properly clean and maintain all leather goods, especially natural veg tanned leather. Since they are comprised of natural fibers, keeping the surfaces clean and restoring/conditioning them with oils will help them stay strong and looking great.
One thing to keep in mind: for any step in leather care, generally test on a small area to ensure the cleaner or finish that you are applying will not react poorly with the material. Once you know it’s safe, clean away 🙂
Vegetable tanned leather is especially sensitive to cleaners. Even large drops of water can darken the material.
How to Clean Vegetable Tanned Leather
Veg tanned leather can be cleaned generally by rubbing a moist, lint-free cloth over the surface. It’s a tricky balance between having the cloth too wet and staining the leather, vs. too dry that it won’t penetrate and remove dirt, dust, and grime.
Some of the moisture will air-dry from the surface, so while it might sound like any water equals instant stain, it usually takes more than a damp cloth to leave any visible traces.
If the dirt is deeper, it has difficult stains, or you want to thoroughly clean the leather, a dedicated leather cleaner might be a helpful choice. Saddle soap is a popular choice. It is intended for saddlery and similar leathers that are vegetable tanned.
Lexol is another leather cleaner that is formulated to be very gentle on leather while removing dirt and grime.
How to Condition Vegetable Tanned Leather
Since vegetable tanned leather has no surface finishes applied, the leather fibers dry out more quickly than on other types of leather. Thus, it is important to more frequently condition veg tanned leather.
Generally, this involves applying a wax, oil, or cream onto the surface and letting the leather absorb it in. When conditioned, the leather is more supple, flexible, resistant to scratches, and feels better in the hand.
Once the surface has been thoroughly cleaned, the conditioner can be applied using an applicator or soft cloth. Conditioner is generally applied in small circles, allowed to soak in, then the excess wiped off with a clean, lint-free cloth.
A protective finish can be applied at this stage, if preferred. The benefit is it will help the leather be a bit more water and scratch resistant. The potential downside is that it will introduce a layer on the leather surface that hides some of the desirable look and feel of natural leather. Protective finishes are usually natural waxes or synthetic waxes/acrylics such as resolene.
Usually, a well-cleaned and conditioned vegetable tanned leather piece is best, without a finish applied.
How to Waterproof Vegetable Tanned Leather
If you’ve purchased a leather good that you plan to use in very wet conditions, or created a piece that you’d like to protect from the elements, it is possible to waterproof veg tanned leather.
A wax protectant can be added to it to help make it water resistant. Once cleaned and conditioned, the wax can be applied to the leather thoroughly. After a few minutes, the wax is generally buffed out and leaves the leather with a surface that is smooth and has a pleasant shine. It also provides a barrier that helps repel water.
For more lasting, and durable finished, acrylics can be applied to the leather surface. An example is a resolene, which essentially leaves a thin, transparent plastic coating over the leather’s surface. However, the stronger the layer of water proofing (often a type of wax), the more difficult it is to later reach, clean, and condition the leather underneath.
How to Fix a Scratch on Vegetable Tanned Leather
There are a few ways to fix and repair scratches in leather. Generally, you’ll try one before moving on to the next, depending on how large and deep the scratch is. Since natural leather has many fibers in it, and originally had oils in the skin, adding oils back into it is usually a first step to try in fixing a scratch.
For small scratches, rub your finger over it to try and buff it out. If the scratch is deeper, try applying some leather conditioner to the scratch and surrounding area, then buff it out after a short while.
If the scratch is very large or deep, you might need to try a leather filler kit. They usually have a substance that can be squeezed into leather cracks/cuts to fill them in. The substance generally has color matching options available so it’s a close visual look to the existing leather. Follow the specific instructions on the kit, though usually once it’s dried the surface can be smoothed and conditioned.
How to Fix a Tear in Vegetable Tanned Leather
Tears in vegetable tanned leather can often be fixed by sewing. The fixed tear will usually never look as smooth/finished as the original piece (those joined fibers actually made up the original hide), though ripped or torn leather can definitely be joined back together. Usually a fine, strong thread can be used to sew through small holes, and mend the tear.
For smaller tears, leather glue can be used. It will join the two torn areas. If a glue is selected in a color that is near the original leather color, it will be less noticeable. If the glue available is very different in color, once dried, the glue can be painted with an acrylic paint that closely matches the leather color. Acrylic paint is beneficial as it will have some flexibility to it, usually helpful if applied onto a leather good.
How to Store Vegetable Tanned Leather
Most leather should be stored in a cool, dry, dust-free location. Generally, leather products benefit from low-average humidity environments. Air flow is also beneficial, as it allows the natural fibers of the leather to “breathe”.
If kept in a sealed environment, the humidity might rise and the leather start to deteriorate, and mold. In an environment with too-low humidity, the leather can start to dry and that could lead to cracking and weakening of the fibers.
A good place to store veg tanned leather is a dressing room or closet that has an average livable temperature, humidity level, and frequent airflow. Some leather goods come with storage bags. They’re usually a breathable fabric that helps keep cut off. Storing it in one of these can be a great choice if available.
Vegetable tanned leather is one of the most versatile, and stylish types of leather available. When considering a purchase or determining which type of leather to use on your next project, this one should definitely be near the top of your list.
What is vegetable tanned leather made of?
Vegetable tanned leather is made of the hides of animals. It’s tanned with tannins (naturally occurring astringents) from plants and bark. This results in a natural leather processed in a natural way. It makes up approximately 10% of all new leather.
Is vegetable tanned leather better?
Vegetable tanned leather is better for certain uses and leather goods. When one is looking for a leather that’s natural, strong, durable, and gets better with age, it’s a great choice. For a leather that looks better with age, it’s one of the best.
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