A time-honored testament to material ingenuity, leather has served as an enduring element of design history. With an array of advantages that were first discovered in prehistoric times, leather’s aesthetics and applications have evolved and expanded over the years as a result of modern technology and industry innovations. The information that follows explores a brief history of leather as an iconic textile and highlights the characteristics that have allowed it to continue on as a contemporary material of choice.
Origins and Overview
As one of the earliest and most advantageous material discoveries, the origins of leather artifacts can be traced as far back as 1300 BC. “Leather provides some of the earliest known evidence of pre-human ancestors modifying nature to fulfill some of their most fundamental needs—in this case hunting for food and using the skins to make clothing for warmth and protection,” says Jack Prause, President of Cortina Leathers. “Based on cave paintings from the Paleolithic period, we know crude methods to preserve or tan the hides using tree bark, leaves, smoke and sun-curing were developed approximately 20,000 years ago.”
Early civilizations around the world started developing leather tanning techniques to soften and preserve animal hide by-products. “Tanning hides so that they were supple, long-lasting, and weather-resistant vastly increased leather’s usefulness for shelter such as teepees, clothing, and even water bags,” says Prause. “It has been said that leather allowed humans to migrate to vast portions of the planet which were previously uninhabitable. Seven thousand years ago, the Assyrians improved tanning efficiency by soaking hides in a mixture of bark and leaves, and so began to use leather for art, decoration, furniture and accessories. Leather was considered so valuable that wealthy Assyrians and Egyptians were frequently buried with leather goods.”
With methods that became gradually became more refined and efficient over time, leather tanning practices permitted hides to be used in the ancient world and have continued for centuries leading to the present day. Leather manufacturing processes and scales of production expanded as societies became increasingly sophisticated. The spread of industrialization saw a demand for leathers that were more soft, supple, and colorful, and traditional vegetable tanned leathers soon became too rigid and for these requirements. During the 19th century, an alternative method to vegetable tanning was invented, and the use of chromium salt became the new standard for modern leather.
Characteristics and Contemporary Advancements
With an impressively long legacy, leather is distinguished by unique characteristics that have allowed the material to expediently evolve and endure over the years. “The unique triple helix structure of the collagen found in natural skins (bovine skins in particular), gives leather its strength and long-lasting wear resistance while remaining flexible, soft, and supple,” says Prause. “These properties, which have never been replicated by artificial means, explain why leather is unmatched in such diverse applications as horse saddles, belts, upholstery, shoes, soft formal gloves, and many things in between. But it is perhaps the less scientific qualities of leather that cause it to remain as valued today as ever. Leather’s organic variations which make each piece unique; the smell, sound and feel when sinking into a well-constructed chair, the way that a leather bag patinas and becomes more beautiful with age and use—how natural leather is received by our senses is what sets it apart even today.”
Modern technology allowed for further innovation in the leather industry. “Recent advancements in the leather industry have been focused on improving the environmental stewardship of the leather industry and on innovations in leather finishes to make leather withstand spills and stains,” says Prause. “The industry has eliminated the use of harmful chemicals such as Hexavalent Chromium. Modern tanneries automatically control every step of their process to reduce the use of chemicals and water and to remove anything harmful through water treatment prior to release. A global industry watch dog, the Leather Working Group, now audits and certifies tanneries to strict environmental standards. Many leather finishing operations have eliminated the use of solvents in their treatments. As a result, leathermaking is now viewed as a sustainable process which is far less impactful on the environment than manufacturing of faux leather substitutes which are petroleum-based plastics.”
Moreover, today’s leathers can benefit from an array of performance finishes for added protection while also meeting the increasingly important need for cleanability and disinfectability. “Advancements in leather finishing such as the use of a Crypton coating to improve performance and stain protection for the first time allow leathers with a natural finish such as anilines or waxy distressed leathers to be used in high wear or high-stain environments such as dining areas,” adds Prause. “Recent testing has proven that with the Crypton finish, leather can even be sterilized for COVID-19 without harming the finish. No longer must a designer compromise their desired aesthetic and use only a fully pigmented leather when a performance leather is required.”