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What Is Leather – Its Origin, Characteristics, and Material

Leather is the entire appeal of this hobby for me. After purchasing high-quality boots, the natural, luxurious material quickly became one of my favorites. Since then, nothing has come close to the look and feel of it, and I continue to create more projects to incorporate it into my everyday life.

Leather is the finished product of animal hide that has been preserved, processed, and dyed. When processed, the hides become durable, colorful, and a symbol of luxury. Leather can come in a wide array of animal types, tanning methods, sizes, and colors. Each quality helps determine the final price.

With leather being the crux of this hobby, let’s look at the material in-depth, providing insight into the history, types, and ways it can be used. 

What Is Leather?

Leather is the finished material that comes from processing various animal skins. When an animal is harvested, the skin is sent to a tannery to make into leather. After cleaning, tanning, and coloring, what was once a wasteful excess turns into a world-renowned luxury material. 

Leather is touted for its beauty and extreme resiliency. The natural material can showcase the life of an animal and the patina over time. When taken care of properly, leather can last decades. 

What We’ll Explore

  • Clearing up Myths & Misconceptions
  • History of Leather
  • What Is Leather Overview Table
  • What Is Leather Made Out Of
  • What are the Types of Leather?
  • How Long Does Leather Last
  • Is Leather a Fabric?
  • Where Does Leather Come From?
  • How is Leather Made?
  • PH Level of Leather
  • What is Artificial Leather?
  • How To Clean and Maintain Leather
  • Pros of Leather
  • Cons of Leather
  • My Personal Research Into Leather
  • Helpful Leather Insights
  • Key Takeaways
Unrolling a Tan Leather Hide - What Is Leather - Liberty Leather Goods
Unrolling a Tan Leather Hide

Clearing Up Myths & Misconceptions

A common myth surrounding leather is an ethical concern that animals are harvested for their hides alone. However, in most cases, this is untrue. The majority of leather produced is the byproduct of the meat industry. Without the creation of leather, the hides would become waste rather than used. 

Tanneries understand these concerns and have taken it upon themselves to ensure this. Many high-quality tanneries pledge only to use hides that are byproducts to make their leather, allowing customers to purchase their products confidently. 

History of Leather

Animal hides have been used since the dawn of time. In the earliest days, an animal’s pelt was harvested for shoes, clothes, pouches, and many other items. During this time, few preservation methods were used, with the leather being salted at best. Despite the continuous use of hides, tanning was only invented 12,000–6,000 years ago. 

At this time, the process used animal feces, urine, fats, and fluids from the animal to prevent the material from decomposing. We have quickly moved from these preserving methods to various chemical combinations. However, the process of salting, cleaning, and scrapping the leather remains largely the same, with advancements only making the process quicker and more efficient. 

What is Leather Overview Table

Vegetable TannedConsidered the best tanning method by using natural tannin found in tree bark and other organic material. Produces a firm, natural leather that may develop a patina over time. 
Oil TannedA type of chromium tanned leather that uses heavy waxes and oils. The leather is completely stuffed to provide a heavy-wearing hide — one of the most durable types of leather with water-resistant properties. 
Chromium TannedA newer method of tanning leather using chromium sulfates to preserve the leather. It is quicker and less expensive, producing softer, more colorful leather, but it will not patina. 
SuedeSuede leather can undergo vegetable or chrome tanning. The difference in this leather is the surface. The top of the leather is either removed or sanded down to provide a plush, fibrous top. 
Combination Tanned A combination of tanned leather using both vegetable and chromium tanning to provide the leather with the best of both worlds. The dual tanning method keeps the leather natural, while the chromium helps provide wear and water resistance. 
Characteristics of Leather

What Is Leather Made Out Of

Leather is mostly made of the skins of animals harvested for their meat, including cows, pigs, deer, and sheep. By treating their skins to produce a material, they are saved from being waste by the meat industry. Once harvested, hides are salted for preservation, cleaned, and processed at global tanneries using various methods. 

Each tannery will have its own formula for preserving the leather. It is at this step that leather acquires most of its final traits. A high-quality tanning method will produce equally high-quality leather. In addition, tanneries will add color, as well as a finishing surface to protect the leather. This means the leather has almost endless possibilities for production. 

What Are the Types of Leather?

Leather is a versatile material that can be categories in a few different types. These types can vary bades on the animal hide, tanning process, or finishing methods used during manufacturing. Many leathers offer distinct qualities, allowing individuals to select the best material for their projects.

The main types of leather include: 

  1. vegetable tanned
  2. chrome tanned
  3. oil tanned
  4. suede leather 

Each type of leather undergoes a different processing method to give them their unique characteristics. 

  1. Vegetable tanning – Vegetable tannage uses natural materials to produce high-quality leather.
  2. Chromium tanning – On the other hand, this method focuses on the quick production of leather. 
  3. Oil tanning – Oil tanned leather takes the chromium finish and stuffs oils and waxes into it, giving the leather added durability. 
  4. Suede – Suede leather is made of loose but neat fibers by removing the surface of the leather. This can be achieved through sanding or splitting the leather. 

How Long Does Leather Last

When leather is properly taken care of, it is meant to last decades, if not a lifetime. Suede, as well as chromium tanned, are the least durable leathers. Often having an artificial finish added that may peel over time. Oil tanned leathers last longer thanks to the added waxes protecting the leather from all sources of damage. 

Vegetable tanned leather is the most interesting. As the leather ages, it will begin to patina, darkening and becoming unique. While it has less water resistance than chromium leather, this change means the leather will develop more character over time. 

Is Leather a Fabric?

While leather is often referred to as a fabric, it is not. A fabric is a “material produced by weaving or knitting fibers.” While leather can be a fibrous material, it does not undergo any process similar to what is described. 

Instead, the material is harvested as the entire sheet of leather comes directly from an animal when it is harvested. It is then processed, providing preserving methods and adding color and finishes. As a result, leather can be simply referred to as a “skin” rather than a fabric. 

Where Does Leather Come From

Leather comes from animal skins that are then processed. These animal hides are often a byproduct of the meat industry that would otherwise become waste. Leather can come from various animals, including: 

  1. Cows
  2. Pigs
  3. Deer
  4. Fish
  5. Crocodiles
  6. Kangaroos
  7. Others

In addition, younger animals may be used, providing a wider variety. Calfskin and lambskin are the two most popular options. By using a younger animal, the leather contains fewer flaws, has a tighter grain, and is often softer.

Leather can come in a wide array of animal types, tanning methods, sizes, and colors.

How is Leather Made?

Leather starts as raw animal skins that are salted for preservation during transport. When they arrive at a tannery, they are washed off and scraped clean. The skins will then begin the tanning process, where they are placed in vats with different chemical formulas to preserve the hide. 

Once tanned, the leather will be dyed in a drum, fully saturating and softening the skin. Finally, a finishing coat may be added to the dyed leather, helping protect it from wear and tear. 

In this video provided by Insider Business, we get a detailed look at the old-world process of leather making, including the dangers faced during leather making.

PH Level of Leather

The pH level of leather is 4.5–5, meaning it is acidic. This is key for keeping the leather’s fats and tannin from deteriorating. Although, a lower pH level may also cause premature damage. This balancing act is key for creating long-lasting leather. 

A chemical reaction will occur when leather comes into contact with products with a much higher pH level. While this happens at a microscopic level, prolonged exposure to bases can cause bitterness, darkening, and hardening. This is why using hand soaps on leather may cause unwanted damage. 

What Is Artificial Leather?

Artificial leather is the many ways inventors have tried to replicate leather. This can be for environmental, ethical, or economic concerns. Artificial leather comes in many forms, including: 

  1. Cactus
  2. Mushroom
  3. Apple
  4. Pineapple
  5. Plastic

Typically artificial leather uses a base material and bonds it together using plastic. Unfortunately, currently, no artificial material truly rivals the quality of leather, as all artificial leathers have durability concerns. 

How To Clean and Maintain Leather

The methods for cleaning and maintaining leather differ based on the leather type. However, some universal options can be useful when determining the leather type used in a product. To clean leather, a horsehair brush works well on all leather types. The bristles are firm enough to remove stuck-on dust or debris without damaging the surface. 

In addition, the friction from using the brush may produce a slight polish, helping restore the leather. Most leathers can then be conditioned to rehydrate the material. Conditioning should be avoided with suede leather but can be applied to all other types. 

Test a small hidden area to determine how the leather will react to the conditioner. Then apply it onto the surface with a clean cloth, allowing it to dry fully before adding any additional product. 

Pros of Leather

Leather offers a lot of benefits as a material. The look, and feel can not be understated. No other material comes close to the same luxury feeling that leather offers while simultaneously providing beautiful colors that may only improve with age.

Leather is also highly durable, lasting decades, if not a lifetime, allowing goods to be purchased and loved longer than many. A huge part of the material’s durability is in the form of wear resistance. Leather can be used in hard-wearing environments with confidence, knowing it can handle anything.

Leather can also be versatile, available in various thicknesses, finishes, and stiffness. This means the leather can be used for delicate products and heavy-duty items — all while keeping the same properties that make the material so special.

Cons of Leather

While leather is a great material with many capabilities, there are some things to consider before using it. The first is the price; leather is a high-quality material with an equally high price. It is not uncommon for leather items to be exponentially more than items made of other materials. 

Leather also requires different tools or techniques to work with it since the material is often thicker and harder to sew. In many cases, household sewing machines will not be enough, instead requiring an industrial machine or hand sewing. Ethical concerns may also come up for some when considering leather. 

While many hides are a byproduct of the meat industry, animal skin alone can push some away from the material. In addition, leather can have detrimental effects on the environment. Narayan Kumar Sah, Chemistry and Technology, at Centria University, in Kokkola, Finland, discussed the issues involved, including water waste. The research provided suggests ways to recycle chromium water waste to reduce the ecological impact tanneries have on the environment. 

My Personal Research Into Leather

Leather is a unique material with a wide variety of properties based on the tanning methods and finishes applied. This can make separating good leather from bad leather difficult. To research, I looked at what consumers and crafters look for in quality leather.


Although leather is a popular material used around the world, most people may have difficulty identifying the types or deciphering the jargon. This does not stop people from purchasing leather goods, as they use their own system to determine quality. From my research, those less familiar with leather will focus on what their senses provide them with. 

They will touch and bend leather products, looking for softness and flexibility. If a leather product is stiff or feels like plastic, they often discard it as cheap. The smell also plays a prominent role for most. Leather is well known as a natural material with a pleasant smell. A leather item that smells like chemicals, or lacks smell, may also be seen as a lower quality. 

When discussing leather shoes, another important factor was considered, thickness. Since leather products can be expensive, consumers want their leather to last. When looking at high-wear items such as a belt, or shoes, thickness plays a large role. People tend to see thick shoe leather as more durable leather, providing much more value than thinner ones.


As crafters passionate about leather, we often see what many others would not when determining quality leather. The first place most seem to look is for a label. Keywords such as “full grain” or “calfskin” can really help uncover the most about the leather.

While detailed tags are uncommon, companies producing high-end leather items will most likely want to advertise them as such. A seasoned crafter may also use their eyes to determine different aspects of the leather.

While it is not always the most accurate method, it can be useful for identifying the animal and grain type and defects. Some animals will have bigger pores, making them more easily identifiable. While blemishes, such as bug bites, or scarring, may let a crafter know the grain has not been altered, full grain leather. 

Wrinkles are a big warning sign for me. A wrinkle in the leather suggests the area it was cut from has a looser grain. This can lead to stretchy, fibrous leather. Most crafters will want the tightest grain possible, as it provides a high-quality product.

When possible, a crafter may also attempt a water test on the leather to help determine the tanning type. A small droplet that quickly soaks into the leather is a sign of a vegetable tannage. This is highly sought after as this is the most natural tanning method and offers patina in the future. 


Whether you are new to leather goods, or a veteran craftsman, there are plenty of ways to determine the quality of leather. While a detailed label is the easiest, using our senses can still provide valuable information. Even a long-standing craftsman will use basic tests to determine leather quality. 

Helpful Leather Insights

What is leather made of?

Leather is made of various animal skins processed to create the material. Animals used can be as common as a cow or horse to as exotic as a crocodile or ostrich. Leather alternatives, however, are made of various plants that are combined with plastic to produce a leather-like material.

Is leather from cows or horses?

Leather can be made from cows, horses, and other animals. More commonly, leather is made from cows, but horses have been steadily growing in popularity. Horse leather is typically thinner, with a softer feel than cow leather, but can be used for many of the same projects.

What animal is leather from?

Leather is made from various animals, including mammals, sea creatures, and reptiles. While the cow is the most common type of animal used for leather, other options may also be highly sought after. Each offers different qualities at different price points. 

What is leather considered to be?

While leather is often considered a fabric, it is actually skin. A fabric consists of interwoven strands of fibers to create a material, unlike leather, which is a processed hide from the animal. When harvested, the raw skin determines the size of the hide, while fabrics can be produced to varying sizes. 

What is most fake leather made of?

Fake leather, also known as leather alternatives, combines processed materials with plastic. Cactus, pineapple, mango, and many others can be turned into fabric sheets but lack comparable durability. In an attempt to create a stronger material, plastic is added to them. Manufacturers are attempting to remove the need for plastic but have yet to find a solution. 

Key Takeaways

  1. Leather is the finished material created by treating various animal hides.
  2. Each type of tanning will provide different traits in the leather.
  3. Artificial leathers may be a good substitute for those against animal products. 

In Closing

Leather is a universally loved material and a large part of our craft. Looking closer, we see the different types and finishes and discover new applications. Leather will always remain a high-quality, luxury material that can be used to create a wide variety of heirloom quality goods. 

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