Leathercraft for Entrepreneurs

Historical Facts and Origins of Leather

Historical Facts and Origins of Leather

A true testament to human ingenuity and resourcefulness, leather has undoubtedly played a crucial part in the development of civilisation. From early man to the modern day, leather has been an enduring feature of almost every era of design and fashion.

The benefits of utilising dried animal hides were first recognised in prehistoric times when early man began to use early forms of leather for clothing and shelter against harsh conditions. The earliest recorded leather artefacts crafted by primitive societies date back to 1300 BC when man began to appreciate animal skins as much more than just a food by-product.

Early civilisations across the world started to develop their own techniques to soften and preserve their animal hide by-products using methods traditionally passed down from father to son through many generations, such as smoke and animal grease. A craft that has now transcended borders and cultures, leathercraft has provided us with some of the most beautiful works of creativity, but can be elusive as the subject of research. 

Consider this a collation of the most important facts and origins about this fascinating craft, including the most important stages in the history of Leather work. 

ancient leathermaking process and the origins of leather crafting

The first point of interest is the reasoning behind the use of leather to begin. Just as sustainability is a huge focus for leather crafters now, the need to use up all parts of an animal after they were hunted seemed to be the primary motivation for ancient civilisations to start experimenting with leather design.

 The material became a staple for creating the clothing and homeware essentials one would need, such as shoes and waterskins. It was the longevity of leather in contrast to other material that also meant that it was used to create objects that required both malleability and sturdiness like crude tents and drums.

Another notable fact about the use of leather is the vastness of its use within the ancient world: It was the ancient Romans that skilfully used the material in their military equipment, and it was the Egyptians and Hebrews that discovered that the tannins found in tree bark would allow for the preservation of hides.

 The use of leather in military equipment and clothing has been credited as a key reason for the successfulness of their military. The Caligae- a piece of footwear worn by the soldier in battle- is not only a symbol of Roman ingenuity, but also soldieries the Romans as some of the finest leather designers. But the weirdest uses of the material? Possibly using it as wallpaper in several European countries in the 17th Century, seen as a status symbol of being socially fashionable and wealth.

The previously mentioned method of preserving animal hides through the use of plants is the earliest form of vegetable tanning recorded, a process that makes up 15% of leather tanning in contemporary times. Though as a process it takes more time than the more widely used process of chrome tanning, vegetable tanning is dependent on Phenol, an organic compound found in fruits, roots and bark extracts and though more time consuming, is an investment environmentally.

When it comes to experimenting and progressing the aesthetic options that leather provides, it was in the Spanish Moors that the tanning process’ were improved further to allow the cultivation of a softer leather, with brighter colours made available. It was in the 8th century that this was put into practise, this leather named after the capital “Cordovan”. 

vintage historic leather making process in london uk

As the uses and popularity of leather expanded even further in the late 19th Century into the 20th and 21st centuries, the increase in demand changed the way that it was produced- to use chromium instead of plant or vegetable tanning meant that the entire process could be both automated and finished in a day. Though time saving, it has made leather unsustainable as a material: The chromium saturated waste water that is both toxic and carcinogenic - is released into waterways and poisons the eco-systems that animals and humans are reliant on are endangered.

But innovative, sustainable fabrics have been created in order to counter the waste but allows the use of the material without limitations. Nosakhari has previously written about several alternatives such as Eco Nylon (made of recycled materials such as fish nets and industrial plastics), and Jelly Fish leather, using dead jellyfish to make biodegradable leather. To see some more of the most original alternatives to classically tanned leather.

Innovative Sustainable Leather of 2021

Despite the immense amount of progress that has been made in the industry, there are still some things that are still are a challenge to produce, like white leather. Because of the composition of the white dye, it can only be used on the best quality hides. It can have the unintended consequence of making the leather very hard and at risk of cracking, making a difficult undertaking.

Th fact that the average person wears something like 4 pieces of leather at any time, whether it be their shoes, watch, wallet or bag is testament of the importance of this material on the daily lives of the masses, and is one of the indicators of the huge money involved in the business.

As an industry, leather makes an incredible amount of money, generating something like $53.8 billion USD worldwide annually, with China being the biggest producer of the material, with a share of 25% in global production. 

In this age of innovation and of boundary pushing, the most exciting chapter in the history of leathermaking may yet be to come.

>>> Crafted By: Ayaan Artan <<<