More than perhaps any other cloth material, leather is a classic. This is true, in part, because of its historical widespread availability and overall ease of creation. After all, in its basest form, leather is just animal hide. As such, the material has been around for literal thousands of years and is, in all likelihood, the first cloth ever to have been used by man.
In spite of its longtime use, however, the creation of good useable leather is not as simple as just skinning an animal. To get the most out of it, you must put it through a process known as ‘tanning,’ a method by which leather is cured for use in a wide array of item types – including but not limited to clothing, everyday carry, upholstery, book bindings, equestrian & sports items, accessories, and more. Nowadays, there are two tanning methods that are the most widespread: vegetable tanning and chrome tanning. In order to help you discern the difference between one another and to ascertain the values and drawbacks of each, we’ve put together the following guide. Saddle up.
What Is Tanning
Treat Your Leather Right
If it hadn’t been used for hundreds of years before it became a popularized by beachgoers, housewives, and the cast of The Jersey Shore, we might call the term ‘tanning’ a bit of a misnomer. The truth is, however, leather tanning was labeled as such long before it became a skincare trend. The big difference? the tanning of leather does not involve darkening it under the rays of the sun or a UV light.
Instead, tanning is the overarching term for the process it takes to turn leather from simple animal hide into usable fabric. Traditionally, this process involves exposing the leather to an acidic chemical compound known colloquially as tannins – yes, like the ones found in wine. This is also from where the term is derived. In fact, the term tannin actually comes from an ancient German word for oak or fir tree – the plants from which this chemical compound was originally derived.
The purpose of tanning is twofold. First, since animal hide is an organic material, it will harden and decompose, creating an entirely unpleasant experience for anyone in the general vicinity. Tanning stops this process, not quite turning the hide into a non-organic material, but staving off the natural functions that would cause it to putrefy. Secondly, tanning also allows the craftsman behind it to imbue certain characteristics into the leather and allows for coloring, of which both differ depending upon the method used.
The two most common types of leather tanning – which together make up more than 90% of all leather sold to the public – are chrome tanning and vegetable tanning. They both have their place in the world of leather, but to know which one is best suited for your purposes, you’ll need to understand the history, process, and their benefits and drawbacks therein.
Vegetable Tanning Explained
Nothing Beats A Classic
Dating back as far as 7,000 BCE, vegetable tanning is – by a long shot – the original form of leather conditioning. In fact, by comparison, every other process has only existed for a fraction of a fraction of the same time span. Nowadays, vegetable tanning isn’t the most popular kind of leather conditioning, as it is an expensive and time-consuming process, but it is still highly coveted and reflects a measure of craftsmanship unheard of in other processes.
It works like this: first, the leather has been prepared for the tanning process by removing all fur and/or hair and softening the material. Then, cedar oil, alum, and/or tannins are applied to the skin. Next, the tanner would stretch the skin – both drying it out and imbuing it with the chemical agent. If done correctly, this would produce a hearty and durable material imbued with rich earthy colors. There are limitations, however, to the variety of hues vegetable tanned leather can be finished in, as the process dictates that the colors imbued must be naturally occurring.
The benefits of vegetable tanned leather are numerous. For starters, this leather tends to adopt a unique patina over time, acquiring markings through use and aging beautifully. This type of leather also tends to be very durable and rigid, making it perfect for use in things like bags, saddles, belts, or even wallets. It is not, however, typically used in clothing or as upholstery, as it can be a bit rigid and tough to the touch. Still, this leather is highly coveted for its history, associated craftsmanship, and beautiful appearance.
Chrome Tanning Explained
Quick & Versatile
During the industrial revolution, every industry went though massive changes to the way they functioned. Leather making was no different. And, sometime around the mid-1800s, it was discovered that, by soaking sutures (medical stitches) in chromium, it would imbue the strands with greater strength and would last for much longer. Not long after that, it was discovered that this same process could be used on leather for the same reason, and would make the process both quicker and cheaper than traditional methods. Now, chrome tanning makes up the vast majority of leather tanning around the world – as it is still cheaper and easier than the more-traditional vegetable method.
One of the biggest benefits to chrome tanning leather is that it makes it possible to create leather in a much wider variety of colors. In fact, the list of colors you can’t create through chrome tanning is shorter than the list of ones you can. Another major benefit of chrome-tanned leather is that the material created is thinner, more pliable, and more supple than its vegetable counterparts. This makes it better for use in jackets, pants, furniture, and even vehicle upholstery, as it is soft and pleasant to the touch. That also means, however, that the leather is not quite as tough. It still offers more durability than things like cotton or canvas, but vegetable tanned leather will win the stress test every time.
As one final note, chrome-tanning leather actually does have a potentially damaging effect on the natural world. This is because the process, utilizing a non-natural compound, creates pollutants that, in the hands of a careless tanner or company, will find their way dumped somewhere they shouldn’t be – namely in our already at-risk waterways. Now, this is not always the case, as some brands will recycle their tanning mixture for repeated usage, but the risk still remains and should be taken into consideration when making a leather purchase.
Which Leather Is Better?
As is the case with many versus face-offs, there’s no straightforward answer for which leather is better. It entirely depends upon usage and personal preference. For instance, if you want a leather jacket like the one Michael Jackson wore in the Thriller video, you’re likely going to opt for chrome-tanned leather, as it is easier to turn into clothing, is soft to the touch, and will afford you the bright red colorway you so deeply desire. However, if you’re looking for a brown leather duffel bag that has to be tough enough to traverse the world and shows off a measure of craftsmanship, vegetable-tanned is the way to go. So, the next time you’re choosing leather goods, take it on a case-by-case basis and hinge your decision on the purpose of the specific item.
Leather Everyday Carry Essentials
Regardless of what form of tanning you prefer, we’re certain you can find something that suits your tastes on our list of 15 leather everyday carry essentials.