Leather is made from the hides of animals, treated and finished to create a durable product suitable for a huge range of uses.
The main sources of animal hides are:
Cattle – 69%
Sheep – 13%
Goat – 11%
Pig – 6%
These animals are not raised for their hides. Their hides are a by-product of being raised for food and, thanks to manufacturers’ skills, they are turned into a versatile material, at the same time ensuring that this valuable resource does not end up being thrown away into landfill.
How is leather made?
There are five main processes in leather making.
1. Cleaning (or beamhouse)
This is the stage where the hide is cleaned along with the removal of wool or hair.
Tanning produces what we would recognise as leather, the process stabilising the protein structure of the hides to make them hardwearing and long lasting. The three traditional tanning methods are based on chrome, vegetable tannins and chrome-free alternatives. Most hides are split after tanning, if they weren’t during beamhouse operations.
3. Retanning (or wet end)
Retanning is the stage that adds character to the leather, through retan materials, dyeing to give colour and oils to add softness, fullness and touch. Characteristics are honed to the requirements of the end product, whether for car or aeroplane seating, footwear, garments or bags and other leather goods.
Leather is softened by machines but for even softer leather, they can be placed in a tumble drum for milling. The process enhances the natural grain structure. Leathers softened by milling are often referred to as ‘tumbled’ and are identifiable by their soft handle and naturally grainy appearance.
Manufacturers can create improved levels of surface protection, distinctive fashion effects or an even more sumptuous feel during this stage by using additional coats, dyes, waxes, oils, and embossing or printing patterns.
What are the main types of leather?
Has a minimal surface finish, allowing the original natural grain surface to be clearly visible and, as it usually comes from the best quality hides and skins, is used for luxury items. The leather has a gorgeous feel to it but is less well protected against marking and soiling.
Has a soft, velvety touch and, often, a clearly visible nap, which is produced by buffing the top surface.
Full grain leather
Is made from the top layer of the hide or skin, which is split during the tanning process. Find out more from our How is leather made? fact sheet.//link needed//
Has had the top surface buffed to produce a soft touch, and is interchangeable, as a term, with buffed leather.
Is the flesh side of the final leather where the fibres tend to be longer, giving it the typically ‘hairy’ appearance. Find out more about how hides are split in our How is leather made? fact sheet.
Find out the full details about these, and all the other types of leather, in our Leather terminology fact sheet
Where is leather made?
The top 3 leather-producing countries in the world, by volume, are: Italy, China and Brazil.
However, nearly every country in the world produces leather in quantity and the industry is an important global employer, with around 500,000 people across the world directly working to manufacture around 24 billion square feet of leather every year.
Of course, many times that number of people work in associated industries, such as leather footwear, leather goods, leather garments, gloves, and furniture – including automotive and aviation. No matter whether the leather is made in one of the top producing nations, or on a smaller scale, its manufacture and use across many industries are vital elements in creating livelihoods that, globally, help to pull millions of people out of poverty.