The Basics of Leather Working

The basics of leather working

Before you purchase your first leather bag, you must understand the basics of leather working. Basic knowledge will help you become dumb-proof to fake advertisers offering $40 “real leather” bags. Such bags are equivalent to plastic ones and will neither last a long time nor look any good on you. Of course, non of us are really that interested in understanding everything about anything that is ever made. However, having an idea and basic knowledge will prevent you from making little mistakes and allow you to appreciate a genuine leather bag once you decide to purchase one.

[GOOD READ: How to Work with Leather?]

Leather Is Great Material

Leather is the quintessential luxury material. It’s the one that only gets better as it ages. Leather is simultaneously durable and aesthetic, comfortable and sturdy, and it can last a lifetime. All of these features are the result of two very important factors.

Firstly, the qualities of the raw hide itself, since that is the base material for all leather goods.

Secondly, good quality leather also highly depends on the level of craftsmanship. The real leather craftsmen, like the ones from Italy, will produce the final product of a superb quality. And vice versa.

With that in mind, perhaps an understanding of the techniques and skills that go into creating fine leather goods will enable the reader to appreciate them even more. Let us go over the basics of leather working which includes three main stages: rawhide, processing and tailoring.

Without further ado, let’s dive right into them

1. Rawhide

All leather starts as hide. You can look at hide as a basic material for leather. One piece of hide can yield three pieces of leather, all of which are different grades. Thus, the first step toward creating a leather product is separating these layers.

The topmost layer goes into making higher-end leather goods, in the form of either top grain or full grain leather. Leather products made from full grain materials are more expensive, and ultimately more durable.

The layer below of the grain layer is called the split. It is the area that is the lower part of the dermis. It become very important to distinguish the two in the tanning process.

To better understand the mind blowing price differences between two “real leather bags”, read about full grain and bonded leather here.

[RELEVANT: How do They Make Leather?]

2. Processing

Leather Processing

Once the piece of leather is extracted from the raw hide, it then goes on to be processed. The processing provides the material with all the mechanical and aesthetic properties people have come to expect from leather.

Firstly, depending on the grade of hide used to make the leather, it is sometimes necessary for leather producers to sand down the outer surface of the material. This removes any imperfections such as scars, branding marks, or small cracks. Leather processed in this way is known as ‘top grain’ leather, whereas leather for which this step is unnecessary is called ‘full grain’ leather.

The primary process that ensures these qualities is called tanning. Basically, tanning is used to make sure that the leather, being an organic product, doesn’t biodegrade. If it were just left untreated, leather would rot away pretty quickly, as all biological organisms do.

When humans were only starting to process leather, they used unsavory materials such as urine and brains, along with salt, to make sure that it didn’t degrade. Nowadays, we use a vegetable based solution to achieve this effect, which is why you will often see the term veg-tan being thrown around in leather working circles.

During this step, it is also possible to add a color to the veg-tan solution, which is why leather from the same animal can have a variety of different colors, even slightly unnatural ones. However, real leather enthusiasts will only accept non-dyed leathers, and who can blame them when the pattern is so beautiful!

3. Tailoring

Leather Tailoring

Once the leather has been processed to a satisfactory degree, it can be sold by leather manufacturers to companies who end up making the final product. However, leather is not sold in the same way other materials are. With things like cotton or silk, you can just tell the seller how much you want, and they will be happy to cut it out for you.

With leather, however, no producer will ever cut a piece of leather to the size that fits you. If you want to buy some leather, you will have to take the whole piece or nothing at all. That is because leather is obtained from various parts of the animal such as the side, belly, shoulder, split, and so on.

Leather cannot be produced in rolls like other materials, since the actual surface area that can be obtained from a single animal is quite limited. You may think that leather manufacturers could simply glue pieces of leather together into a roll, and sell it that way. However, that would significantly downgrade the quality of the leather. And to be honest, it would no longer could be called leather, but rather plastic.

In any base, for tailors working with leather, whether they are making boots, bags, or upholstering some furniture, it is critical that they are able to mark out the pieces they want to cut out of their leather very carefully.  And also that they end up using as much of the leather as possible. That is also a consequence of the finite surface area of a piece of leather.

The Basics of Leather Working

Thus there you have the basics of leather working. You now know what steps any leather product, whether a bag or a wallet, has to go through to be offered to you for a purchase. Fine tailoring of leather is very difficult and it takes a lot of skill. Thus understanding everything in detail is not necessary, as we tend to have limited capacity in out brain memory. However, understanding the basics is crucial in order to appreciate the real deal and protect yourself from purchasing some fake “real leather”.

If you don’t feel like making leather bags yourself, you can check out our big collection here.

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