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Where Does Leather Come From – The Animal and Plant Sources

When I began leather crafting, I wanted to be conscious of where my material came from. I have a lot of respect for animals and nature and was worried I would be part of a needless industry. As I learned more about where leather comes from and the alternatives available, I could better decide what I wanted to use. 

All natural leather hides come from various animals. The leather itself is a byproduct of the meat industry that would otherwise become unused waste. Plant leather alternatives are a mixture of different plant fibers and plastic to create an artificial material meant to simulate leather. 

Choosing an ethical leather can be important. This article will cover leather sources and their qualities to help you decide which to choose. 

Where Leather Comes From

Natural leather hides come from various animals, while alternative leathers come from plant fibers. Most leather produced is a byproduct of the meat industry. Cows, bison, pigs, fish, and other animals, are used for their meat, leaving behind their hides, which are salvaged by the leather industry. This may only sometimes be the case as some more exotic animals may be hunted for their leather.

Plant leathers are relatively new alternative leathers that have yet to reach their full potential as uses for the material are developing. They utilize fibers found within various plants and embed them with plastics to create durable sheets of material. Cacti, mushrooms, and pineapples are just some of the various plants used to make plant leather.

Each has its unique set of characteristics, as their structure may differ. Although hopeful, there is currently no leather alternative as durable as animal leather without the help of plastics. 

What We’ll Explore

  • Clearing up Myths & Misconceptions
  • History of Where Leather Comes From
  • Where Leather Comes From Overview Table
  • Where is Leather Produced
  • How is Leather Made
  • My Personal Research into Where Leather Comes From
  • Helpful Where Leather Comes From Insights
  • Key Takeaways
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Clearing Up Myths & Misconceptions

A common misconception about leather goods is their potential for being unethical. Many believe animals are directly harmed for making leather, and alternatives are necessary to replace the leather industry. This is largely incorrect. Most leathers seen today are a byproduct of the meat industry.

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Once an animal is harvested, its skin becomes waste that is salvaged for leather production. However, some exotic animals are hunted solely for their leather. Another key issue with alternative leathers is their use of plastics. Animal leather can be fully biodegradable when mainly kept natural.

However, the plastic used with plant leather alternatives will not offer the same benefits. In many instances, animal leather will be more sustainable than alternatives until the technology for producing leather from plants improves. 

History of Where Leather Comes From

Leather is one of the earliest discoveries, with artifacts dating to 1300 BC. After stripping the animal for meat, the hides were cleaned to serve as the cloth used for armor. Since this discovery, various processes were created to prevent the leather from rotting.

Aldehyde, vegetable, and alum tanning were some of the earliest methods. Vegetable and alum tanning is still used. However, plant leathers are a fairly new material made to combat the effects of the leather industry.

Researchers have searched for plants with similar fiber structures, such as cacti and mushrooms, and have begun creating materials that mimic leather. However, many of these artificial materials require plastic, which contradicts their purpose of making a more sustainable good. Thus, research continues for a better leather alternative. 

Where Leather Comes From Overview Table

TypeDetails
Cow/CalfThe most common type of leather available for purchase. Used in various products and generally considered a universal leather. 
PigA popular leather that is more budget-friendly. Seen in some products such as shoes. More commonly found as a lining material used with other leathers.
Lamb/SheepFairly common, luxury leather. Soft and flexible, but not as durable as others. Often seen in more delicate fashion goods rather than hard-wearing items.
BisonA popular leather choice for hard-wearing or rustic leather goods. Extremely durable and can be found in larger, thicker sizes.
Cactus A newer process that can be difficult to acquire. Made from the leaves of the nopal cactus plant and plastics. Described as durable and water resistant.
PineappleAlso known as Pinatex, pineapple leather is a newer discovery. Made from the cellulose fibers of the fruit’s leaves, mixed with additives to create the material. Described as durable but not water resistant. 
Mushroom Also known as Mylo, mushroom leather is currently under trial production. Made from the mycelium of mushrooms. Currently uses plastic to produce, but is seeking an alternative. Mushroom mycelium has the most similar fiber structure to animal leather and is said to have a tensile strength similar to deerskin.
Characteristics About Where Leather Comes From

Where is Leather Produced?

Leather is produced worldwide at various tanneries. Each specializes in a specific leather. For example, India produces different types of leather, but its main export is fish leather. Tanneries take hides and process them into many types, colors, and finishes. Making leather as we know it today.

Plant leather is a more grassroots operation, where those who produce it will have their own small manufacturing facilities. However, some vegan leathers will be made into sheets and then shipped to leather tanneries to have a finishing coat applied. This helps them more closely resemble animal leathers.

Plant leathers are relatively new alternative leathers that have yet to reach their full potential as uses for the material are developing.

How is Leather Made?

Most animal leathers undergo the same production process. Tanneries will receive whole hides that need to have the fur removed, cleaned, and cut in half. The hide is then cut to ensure an even leather thickness before beginning the tanning process. During tanning, the hides are placed into large drums filled with different chemical compositions to process the hide.

This preserves the leather while improving its durability. Finally, any leather dyes or necessary finishing coats are added to produce specific leather types. In the Journal of Leather Science and Engineering, Diego Navarro, Jianhui Wu, Wei Lin, Pere Fullana-i-Palmer, and Rita Puig questioned the sustainability of the current techniques used for tanning leather.

They noted that the environmental damage caused by some leather tanning processes is well known and suggested that the developments in leather alternatives should inspire improvements in the animal leather production process. 

In the helpful video below, the Fenice Care System details the processes that an animal hide goes through to become leather. Showcasing the machinery used in each step. 

My Personal Research on Where Leather Comes From

After learning how leather can be a byproduct of the meat industry, I wanted to collect information from big named tanneries and try to uncover if their leathers are a byproduct. For this, I researched Horween Leather Company, Wickett & Craig of America, and Badalassi Carlo. 

Horween Leather Company

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Horween leather is one of the most, if not the most, well-known leather brands available. Their signature leathers include Chromexcel and Dublin. The Horween Leather Company is a tannery located in Chicago, Illinois.

According to a blog post on their website, Horween Leather Company uses hides that are a byproduct. They describe their shipments as being whole hides, brined, and with the hair. From there, they are processed into the famous leather used by various companies. 

Wickett & Craig of America

Wickett & Craig leather, located in Curwensville, Pennsylvania, is yet another staple in the leather community, famous for its English bridle leather, which is some of my favorite leather. To determine if Wickett & Craig uses hides that are a byproduct, I found an interview conducted by Stitchdown in 2020. In the interview, Matt Bressler, Wickett & Craig’s Vice President and Sales Manager, was asked about the environmental impacts of the tanning industry.

Bressler stated, “Well, the hides are a byproduct of the beef industry. So unless someone can talk the whole world into quitting eating beef, then these hides are either going to go to a landfill or tanners are going to make something out of them.” This supports the idea that the leathers used by their tanning companies are largely byproducts of the meat industry. 

Badalassi Carlo (Tuscan Tanneries)

After researching two major U.S. tanneries. I decided to look at the most famous leather tanneries in Italy. Badalassi Carlo is a tannery located in San Miniato, Italy, famous for vegetable tanned leathers, including Pueblo and Minerva Box. When researching this tannery, I came across the “The Genuine Italian Vegetable-Tanned Leather Consortium.”

This is a collection of Tuscan Tanneries that self-regulate through their own ethical code. Badalassi Carlo is part of this group. A key point on their website is that “No animal is killed for its skin.” This was pleasantly surprising as 20 well-known Italian tanneries are a part of this group. These tanneries go above and beyond to ensure their leather is produced as ethically as possible. 

Conclusion 

When I first decided to look into this, I was somewhat worried that what I would find would make me reluctant to purchase leather. However, that was the opposite reaction garnered, as every company I looked into made it a point to use byproduct material.

The Italian tanneries, in particular, really impressed me as they made it a point to state not harming animals was a goal. While I know there are many more tanneries yet to look into, I can rest easy knowing some of the biggest names in the leather industry pride themselves on making the material as ethically as possible. 

Various Piles of Dyed Leather Hides - Where Does Leather Come From - Liberty Leather Goods
Various Piles of Dyed Leather Hides

Helpful Leather Insights About Where Leather Comes From

Can leather be made without animals?

Yes, there are various leather alternatives that can be made from plants, plastics, or other materials. However, as they work to emulate leather, the characteristics may differ. Many alternatives will degrade faster. 

Does vegan leather breathe?

Most leather alternatives do not breathe as they are without any pores. However, as discoveries are made, there are new leather alternatives that can breathe. Cactus and mushroom leather are two up-and-coming alternatives that do breathe.

What is 100% leather made of?

One hundred percent leather can be a misleading term. While it implies that the leather uses no filler product, it neglects the quality issue. Items that are 100% leather can be compressed or low-quality leather that is touted as genuine.

What is the highest quality leather?

While it is commonly said that full grain leather is the highest quality leather possible, this is not a rule. Full grain leather is typically considered high quality due to the unaltered material, leaving the most grain possible.

However, due to different methods of tanning, top grain leather or other leather types can be of higher quality. Quality leather is usually characterized by a tight grain, even thickness, and thorough dye job. 

Key Takeaways

  1. Leather is a byproduct of the meat industry, but some exotic leathers may still be harvested for profit. 
  2. Plant leathers currently include plastic which stops them from being biodegradable/sustainable. 
  3. Leather alternatives are still being developed and could provide a vegan solution for those who do not want to use animal leather. 

In Closing

There are various types of leather to choose from, each with its benefits. Animal leather may currently be the best choice as it prevents unnecessary waste, but as technology progresses, we may see more sustainable leathers take their place.

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