Leather and Materials information

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  A picture of a piece of the "Ice Man's" outer garment is shown in the upper left corner. It was once covered with fur which is now missing. It is approximately 5,300 years old. That is 3,300 B.C. or when upper and lower Egypt was first united. Notice the even spacing of the hand stitching.
  Obviously leather has been used by man for thousands of years. It is one of the few things that has stood the test of time because of it's practical benefits. Persons concerned about the environment and recycling should embrace the use of leather because it is a renewable resource. As long as people eat beef instead of soybean substitutes the hides for making leather will be there as a byproduct. It would be as unthinkable to waste this resource as it would be to waste the wood scraps that are made into chip board.
  Leather is a natural material, however modern tanning methods make leather as natural as the chip board mentioned previously or as natural as masonite. The natural benefit of leather, like wood  is that its fibers have grown together rather than having been woven. This is even more true with leather than wood which grows directionally. It is this flexible non woven raw material that is irreplaceable.
  We all know about the grain of wood. When using the word grain in reference to leather we mean the top surface, the strong outer part of the hide, where the hair was.
  The hides are initially treated to stabilize and preserve them, this product is called crust. Finishers and tanneries then buy this to process further. There are many different tanning methods each producing leather with different properties for different uses. This leather is often given additional treatments by leather finishing companies. They may split, sand, finish, plate, emboss, tumble, color, and stuff the leather for use by a special customer. The finisher may specialize in a particular tannage or finish several types.

Here is some info about tanning from www.britannica.com:

Animal skins and hides are treated to preserve them and make them suitable for use.

The term hide is used to designate the skin of larger animals (e.g., cowhide or horsehide), whereas "skin" refers to that of smaller animals (e.g., calfskin or kidskin). The preservation process employed is a chemical treatment called tanning, which converts the otherwise perishable skin to a stable and non-decaying material. Although the skins of such diverse animals as ostrich, lizard, eel, and kangaroo have been used, the more common leathers come from seven main groups: cattle, including calf and ox; sheep and lamb; goat and kid; equine animals, including horse, mule, and zebra; buffalo; pig and hog; and such aquatic animals as seal, walrus, whale, and alligator.

The hides of mammals are composed of three layers: epidermis, a thin outer layer; corium, or dermis, the thick central layer; and a subcutaneous fatty layer. The corium is used to make leather after the two sandwiching layers have been removed. Fresh hides contain between 60 and 70 percent water by weight and 30 to 35 percent protein. About 85 percent of the protein is collagen, a fibrous protein held together by chemical bonds. Basically, leather making is the science of using acids, bases, salts, enzymes, and tannins to dissolve fats and nonfibrous proteins and strengthen the bonds between the collagen fibers.

Leather making or leather work is an ancient art that has been practiced for more than 7,000 years. Primitive man dried fresh skins in the sun, softened them by pounding in animal fats and brains, and preserved them by salting and smoking. Beginning with simple drying and curing techniques, the process of vegetable tanning was developed by the Egyptians and Hebrews about 400 BC. During the Middle Ages the Arabs preserved the art of leather making and so improved it that morocco and cordovan (from Córdoba, Spain) became highly prized leathers. By the 15th century, leather tanning was once more widespread in Europe, and, by the mid-19th century, power-driven machines that performed such operations as splitting, fleshing, and dehairing were introduced. Toward the end of the 19th century, chemical tannage--in particular, the use of chrome salts--was introduced.

The modern commercial leather-making process involves three basic phases: preparation for tanning, tanning, and processing tanned leather. As a preliminary step, a hide must be carefully skinned and protected both in storage and transportation before reaching the tannery. A hide will begin to decompose within hours of an animal's death; to prevent this from happening, the hide is cured by a dehydrating process that involves either air-drying, wet or dry salting, or pickling with acids and salts before being shipped to a tannery.

At the tannery the hide is soaked to remove all water-soluble materials and restore it to its original shape and softness. Hair is loosened usually by a process called liming, accomplished by immersing the hides in a mixture of lime and water; the hair and extraneous flesh and tissue are removed by machine. The hide is then washed, delimed, bated (the enzymatic removal of nonfibrous protein to enhance color and suppleness), and pickled (to provide a final cleansing and softening).

The tanning process derives its name from tannin (tannic acid), the agent that displaces water from the interstices of the hide's protein fibers and cements these fibers together. Vegetable tanning, which is the oldest of tanning methods, is still important. Extracts are taken from the parts of plants (such as the roots, bark, leaves, and seed husks) that are rich in tannin. The extracted material is processed into tanning liquors, and the hides are soaked in vats or drums of increasingly strong liquor until they are sufficiently tanned. The various vegetable-tanning procedures can take weeks or months to complete. The end result is a firm, water-resistant leather.

Mineral tanning, which uses mineral salts, produces a soft, pliable leather and is the preferred method for producing most light leathers. Use of this method can shorten the tanning period to days or even hours. Chromium salt is the most widely used mineral agent, but salts from aluminum and zirconium are also used. In mineral tanning the hides are soaked in saline baths of increasing strength or in acidic baths in which chemical reactions deposit salts in the skin fibers.

Oil tanning is an old method in which fish oil or other oil and fatty substances are stocked, or pounded, into dried hide until they have replaced the natural moisture of the original skin. Oil tanning is used principally to make chamois leather, a soft, porous leather that can be repeatedly wetted and dried without damage. A wide variety of synthetic tanning agents (or syntans), derived from phenols and hydrocarbons, are also used.

After the basic tanning process is completed, the pelts are ready for processing, the final phase in leather production. The tanned pelt is first thoroughly dried and then dyed to give it the appropriate color; common methods include drum dyeing, spraying, brush dyeing, and staining. Blended oils and greases are then incorporated into the leather to lubricate it and to enhance its softness, strength, and ability to shed water.

The leather is then dried to about 14 percent moisture, either in the air or in a drying tunnel or by first stretching the leather and then air or tunnel drying it. Other less frequently used methods include paste and vacuum drying. The dried leather is finished by reconditioning with damp sawdust to a uniform moisture content of 20 percent. It is then stretched and softened, and the grain surface is coated to give it additional resistance to abrasion, cracking, peeling, water, heat, and cold.

The leather is then ready to be fashioned into any of a multitude of products. This leather work includes shoes and boots, outer apparel, belts, upholstery materials, suede products, saddles, gloves, luggage and purses, and recreational equipment as well as such industrial items as buffing wheels and machine belts.

  Oak tanning is one of the oldest kind of tannage. The Tannin used in this process can be  obtained from Oak tree bark. In countries where there was no Oak bark, urine was used. Some third world leather tanned in this way was still appearing on the market 20 years ago.
  Chrome tanning is more recent and uses chrome salts as the tanning agent. Sometimes oak tanned leather is then chrome tanned, giving the leather some of the benefits of both. This is called retanned leather.
  My seven braid belt shown below is made from Oak Tanned harness leather. This is the same kind of leather that is used for hand tooled belts, harness and saddles.

7 Braid One Piece Leather Belt

  The hides themselves come from all over the world. Argentina and Brazil have a big beef industry and the hides from there are imported to the U.S. Market. Pigskin from China is quite good quality. England produces some good oak tanned and retanned leather. Hides from U.S. range beef can have a lot of healed scratches, while feed lot animals have had an easier life and have few markings. The scratched up leather can have the grain sanded and a smooth synthetic finish sprayed on it. It is still called leather even though it appears to be vinyl, thus perversely making vinyl appear to be more like leather.
  The leather can be split into layers and the weak lower layers can be made into suede. Scratched top grain leather can also be made into suede of better quality. Splits can even have a finish applied to them to make them appear to be top grain, this is really crap, it cracks and tears with use but is still sold as and is leather.
  Modern tanners and finishers can turn identical crust into completely different products with characteristics uniquely suited for a particular purpose. Quality leather sometimes has as much to do with suitability for a given use as anything else.

  While the original hides are the thing of value, it is all the work done by the tanneries and finishers that give it it's cost. Tanneries and finishers now must comply with environmental laws and the increased cost of this as well as the increased costs for shipping and the chemicals they use has increased the cost of leather in recent years. The cost of leather is now more in line with it's true value.

  I use different tannages for different products. Naturally, the leather used for the handbags won't by itself make a good belt. There are times when more than one type of leather is used in the same item to make a superior product. All top grain leather is of good quality for some purpose, whether that purpose is pump gaskets, work boots, belts or handbags is determined through experience.
  Choosing leather that is suitable for my products is a time consuming task. I am constantly sampling leathers from different tanneries and finishers to find the best leathers for my purposes. Getting timely delivery of leather that is the same grade and color as the sample is an added complication.
  For handbags I like to use naked top grain leather or leather with very little finish. This leather is drum dyed so the color won't wear off, though it will eventually fade if you leave it hanging in a window all summer. Naked leather will show markings that occurred during the life of the animal. When cutting I sometimes feature these markings in a subtle way and they are not considered flaws, but rather a sign of authenticity that vinyl substitutes would not have. The Ultima leathers that I am using have the fewest of these markings. Notice the natural markings on the leather used in this HOBO handbag below.

Custom Made Leather Handbag

  Notice the difference between the leather used above and the Ultima Brown straps and Ultima Black leather used on this DIANA TOTE below.

Custom Made Leather Handbag

The oak leather used for the belts and some of the wallets is about as natural as leather gets. I hand stain, dye edges and finish it myself. The exotic looking leathers where used are actually cowhide that has been embossed and finished specially for this look. I do not condone the raising of animals for their fur or hide alone.


  Suitability for a given purpose is my rational for using the high tech fabrics in my leather goods. While they are called man made it is somewhat interesting to realize that they have a lot in common with the amount of 'man made' in leather. The fabric is made from fibers that are tightly woven then bonded and embossed and who knows what else. This special treatment gives them their cost and their value.

  As an example of why the combination of leather with high tech fabrics gives a superior product, consider the chairs. While the leather for the chairs is the best quality available, from a finisher who makes this upholstery leather especially for use in corporate jets, it is meant to be a covering only. In my chairs it needs to be supported by a fabric that is strong, breathable and won't rot out and weaken like canvas does from age, moisture and exposure to sun. Combining the look and feel of this fine leather with the strength, light weight and durability of my special fabric makes a superior product that I don't believe one can get anywhere else. The chair seat is strong, it won't stretch out and sag, but all that is visible is the beauty of this fine leather.

  I use all brass hardware when available, including zipper teeth if that is what the customer prefers and the design allows. Making choices about what to use and what not to use are sometimes affected by design considerations. Be assured that I strive to produce quality products and always use the highest quality materials for a given use.

                                  See Design Considerations for more information


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   Leather handbags and other leathergoods can get dirty, wrinkled  and maybe even stained.     You may be wondering about preventative measures and even be wondering what you should do to your new special leather item to preserve it.
   If you want it to stay looking just like it did when you took it out of the box... put it back in the box. If you want to rub something on it... it's yours, do what makes you happy. If you put           something on it, it cannot be returned.
  Keep in mind what the tanners and finishers have already done to produce this leather that has been chosen as the best leather for it's purpose. If it needed something rubbed on it to preserve it, I would have done it for you, or chosen different leather. I am not selling a kit.
   I have come to believe that there may be something to the theory of evolution. For thousands of years, tanning and maintaining leather required a lot of rubbing oils into leather. It now seems to be instinctive in humans if indeed it has not produced a new gene.
  I have used leather scraps to patch jeans. Surprisingly, they can be machine washed many times before they become stiff and start to shrink. Neatsfoot oil restores them for this purpose. That is an extreme example of what not to do to your leather goods, even though it worked for this purpose. Neatsfoot oil is normally used on leather pump gaskets to keep leather from being damaged while immersed in water. In the past it was sometimes used on work shoes also, but most modern shoes have cemented on soles. The adhesives can break down and be damaged by oil.
  I do not expect that you will wear your leather handbag on your feet instead of boots so it is unlikely that it will get repeated wet and dry cycles and become salt stained. With normal use the
leather does not need something on it to preserve it.
  Whatever you do to leather will change it's appearance in some way. This, as well as normal use, will make the item uniquely yours. Oil will darken leather. Keep your leather handbag away from
Italian salad dressing. Naked leathers are porous and will absorb oil. Oil from your hands will in time give this leather a pleasing patina. If you do not want this to happen you can use a conditioner, it will fill the pores and darken the leather according to the porosity of the leather and what is in the conditioner. This will perhaps prevent staining, The idea is to put oil or wax on the leather to pre stain it in a uniform way.
  The first stain is the worst, especially an oil stain. Service Master, the cleaning Co. used to have a product called Oil sorb Pro. It works almost like magic, if you can get some. Otherwise try using Fullers Earth to absorb the oil or clean the leather with saddle soap and then use a conditioner on it if the leather feels dry. It won't look like new but you will have taken the first step in the break in process. The break in process usually takes about a year and is unique to each user, then the leather should maintain the same look for a long time. This break in process also depends on the type of leather. The naked leathers become more leathery looking with use than the leathers with some aniline finish.
  Just about the time leather really starts looking good is when the bags with regular linings are shot on the inside or if all leather, the inside is getting grotey. You can use a sponge with warm water and soap on the bonded linings that we use, if necessary.
  You may want to clean the outside with saddle soap, though this may not be suitable for all leathers. If you do, don't just rub it on, use it with a damp rag as if it were soap, then rub the leather dry. By this time you are probably ready to enhance the look with a leather treatment. Don't use silicone or any product intended for, or used on shoes. I hesitate to recommend anything specific, check out what they have at Walmart, it will be as good as anything
you can get elsewhere. Some things rub off on  your clothes, some  darken, some shine. ( see advise from tannery below ) I use "Leather Balm" on my oak tanned, hand stained leather belts.
  Chances are that even after 2 years, unless you have repeatedly gotten the leather wet, it won't really have to have something on it to keep the leather from cracking. You can tell from the feel if the leather is getting stiff or not. If it is, it's time for a leather conditioner. Or... just buy a new one... it's probably time for a change anyway :-)
  If the leather stays dry it will give you years of use. What really destroys leather is mold growing on the leather. It feeds on the fibers, eventually the leather goes dry and powdery similar to dry rot in wood. Just putting on oil will not repair the leather. If it gets wet it will eventually need to have the oil in the leather restored for looks and flexibility, but more importantly it should not be left in a damp enclosed environment where mold can grow. Dry the leather, out of the sun, preferably in a room with a dehumidifier. Lay it out in the shape you want it to be until dry.
  I asked representative from a U.S. tannery, who supplies some of my leather, to comment on my leather care advise. This is his reply:

" You have covered everything I can think of quite accurately. The only thing I might mention is that when informing customers on applying oils, conditioners, silicones, etc. that they make  sure that they do not have a solvent in them. Most leather, and  all our leather is made with water based finishes. If a oil or conditioner has a solvent in it, the solvent could destroy the finish."

   I think what we are talking about here are things like Acetone ( which is in nail polish remover ) and other petroleum based thinners. I have had people do some crazy things with leather, like washing their glazed sheepskin coat in the bath tub, pouring Coca Cola on leather, and heating leather in their oven. Please do not do these things, contact me first if you have a special problem.

Leather Care Products  These are some of the products that are used in finishing handmade leather goods. Some may be helpful if you have damage or wear on your leather item.
  They are available from the Leathergoodsconnection.com
Leather Care page where their use is described. You can also see how they are used for making handmade belts with the link below.
How to make a leather belt     Make a leather handbag

  Don't use anything but a damp cloth and mild soap on upholstery leather. That goes for the Titanic Deck Chair as well as the Directors Chair. You may want to do something with the wood, either when new, or after it starts to go gray, but you don't have to. What you do with the wood depends on the look you want. Take the leather off before working on the wood and don't put it back till the finish is dry. If you want to use varnish or urethane do it when you first get the chair and touch up nicks when they happen.     Contact me All email answered promptly

by Henry Hibbard

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