The Art Of Leather Making: What You Need To Know About This Age-Old Practice
Walk into any modern living space and you will likely encounter leather, be it the upholstery or in a decorative material. Leathercraft has gone a long way since ancient times. While modern designs have emerged, the art of leather making is still a time-honoured tradition that dates to the BC era.
Creating leather pieces is an intricate process that has evolved over thousands of years. Despite employing many technological advancements, the craft still begins with the humble animal hide. Most leather nowadays are made from the skin of cattle, horses, aquatic animals, buffalos, or pigs. More exotic animals like crocodiles and snakes have also been used in leather making. Ostriches, kangaroos and lizards aren’t exempt either, being rare and more highly prized. Despite the variety, all hides are the same in composition: thin epidermis, a thick corium and a subcutaneous fatty layer. The corium is often what makes the leather we know of today, after it has gone through the tanning process.
There are currently a multitude of leather purveyors in the market, but not all carry the same standards. For most leading furniture brands, quality starts way early, even before the curing process. “Our study initially starts with a research on materials: we go to the smallest tanneries, recovering ancient traditions and deviating from the ordinary path,” says Paolo Bestetti, CEO of high-end Italian brand, Baxter.
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Other brands source all genuine full-grain leather and use them to create unique pieces that often transcend expectations. “One distinctive feature of many Flexform designs is woven patterns,” shares Saul Galimberti, head of Flexform’s Research and Development department and director of the Flexform Design Centre. These patterns can be seen in their Cestone sofa and the Filicudi ottoman. Meanwhile, the luxurious Fendi Casa brand, distributed locally by Living Innovations, also uses all-European leather that is soft to the touch, with a distinctly natural appearance that is pleasing to the eye.
Artisans from luxury brands and suppliers must follow a strict process to achieve the best results. But while each maker has his own nuanced methods to follow, all products are expected to go through the same laborious procedures.
The first step is to preserve, or cure rawhides, often done by freezing, salting, or drying. It’s crucial for this first step to be done properly to avoid wasting quality hides. After it is cured, the leather is limed to remove hair from the animal’s skin. Fleshing follows, the step of separating any extra tissue from the hide. Sometimes, makers split the hides to separate the top grain side from the bottom. These two sides are used for different applications—the top side is used for grain leather, the bottom for suede.
Once the hide is ready, it is pickled in acid and salt solutions to make it receptive to the next step, tanning. While the word tanning is familiar, the details of the process is less so. Tanning involves the absorption of tannins to make the leather stable and less prone to disintegration.
Coloured leather, the popular choice of homeowners, is also affected during the tanning process. Plant tannins give leather a brownish tone, while fat and oil tannins give it a yellowish tint. Synthetic tanning will often result in a whitish veneer while chrome tanning into a bluish grey leather. For more specific colours however, leather must be dyed. There are two main methods to achieve this: by dyeing and by using pigmentation with binder-based colours. Dyeing usually takes place in a dye bath with rotating barrels.
For sensitive leather, surface binder-based pigmentation is preferred. This forms a protective pigment layer on the surface after dyeing. In aniline leather, the pores of the animal are still completely recognisable as there is no pigment-based top layer. In semi-aniline leather, the pores are still visible, but a thin layer of colour makes it less noticeable. In pigmented leather however, no pores at all are seen; instead, the focus is on the thick colouration of the leather itself. Makers who offer a wide spectrum of coloured leather often uphold this is method meticulously in order to ensure quality and the right colour.
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There’s no doubt that, with all these factors to consider, choosing a leather piece can be overwhelming. “Having a full-grain leather with an aniline tanning process reveals the highest degree of quality,” asserts Bestetti.
Another factor to consider is feel. Pieces from Fendi Casa are often known for their velvety soft and smooth texture; this is what those in the know often look for when purchasing leather. Depth, wear-resistance and the ability to transpire (a quality wherein the leather contains open pores that make its texture pleasant and comfortable to the touch) are also important considerations in high-quality leather pieces, which are sure to appreciate over time. Because leather is so versatile, people also have the freedom to decide which would suit their tastes the most. Poltrona Frau, distributed locally by Furnitalia, is known for their Pelle Frau leather, a group of 12 collections that each undergo a different tanning process to achieve different feels, colours, and looks.
Of course, maintenance is just as important to consider. “Unlike other materials, leather adapts to the temperature of the room and the human body. It is a natural product that, with time, takes on character and charm—but needs care and attention,” says Stefania Netti, of Fendi Casa.
For Baxter, special maintenance kits are specifically designed for each type of leather they produce. This guarantees longevity for the piece and assures owners that they are getting the best care for their purchase. Clients can also take low-maintenance approach. “The fact that leather is natural and completely dyed guarantees a uniform look through the years. What we suggest in order to maintain original leather aspect is to clean it regularly with a dump cloth,” shares Galimberti.
While many trends come and go, leather is here to stay. It’s hardly a trend, but more of an artform, one that involves a meticulous process discovered through a rich history of practice and patience. Be it in our closets or around our spaces, leather has become a true marquee of timeless style and ever-evolving craftsmanship.
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