What are leathers? How do we use them, and what kinds of leather do we have in the Material ConneXion library? We'll hear from Material Specialist Jennifer Coppola about the world of natural and vegan leathers.
Material ConneXion: What is leather? How do we classify them, and how are they made?
JC: Leather is a finished material made from animal skins that have been treated and preserved. The process involves turning a hide or a pelt into a useable material through tanning and dyeing. The animal pelts are typically waste from the food industry, which is a great way to utilize a product that would otherwise have no use. This includes cows, calves, pigs, goats, sheep, lamb, deer, buffalo, ostrich, reptile (crocodile, snake, lizard, etc.), and fish (salmon, eel, stingray, etc.). Essentially any animal hide can be produced into leather goods.
MCX: We've seen a lot of new leathers and leather alternatives come into the library recently. Can you talk about how those leathers are made and how they're being used? Are there any limitations with alternative leathers?
JC: The alternative leathers that are found in our library can be split into two categories: synthetic/man-made (such as PU and PVC) and bio-based (materials that can act as leather from a durability or hand-feel perspective.) Both are suitable options depending on the application. Synthetics do reduce the reliance on animal skins, but they are more harmful to the environment since the materials don’t break down. They also contain some controversial chemicals, such as phthalates (additives to make it flexible). The bio-based options, alternatively, can be made from biodegradable materials like cork, mushroom buttons, palm leaves and pineapple.
MCX: What are your recommendations for choosing the best leather for a project? What are some restrictions that come with different kinds of leather?
JC: Every animal has a maximum hide size, and that dictates the application that the leather can be used for. Depending on the application, there could be several suitable options. If you are making a leather couch, you’re going to use cow since it’s the most resilient and it yields the most material. You’ll look for a finished leather that is full-aniline dyed, meaning the dye fully penetrates the hide. This dyeing technique offers maximum resilience and longevity, causing it to repel stains and be long-lasting. Full or top grain hides refer to the uppermost skin of the animal. The benefit of using this quality is that each grain will vary from hide to hide. My favorite characteristic of full grain leather is that it looks better over time since leather wears extremely well and will develop a natural patina.
If you’re making a leather skirt, you might use a softer leather like sheep or goat since they are extremely soft and flexible. These hides will likely be a split leather, meaning the hide is split into multiple layers to make the most out of the material. This split refers to a middle or lower layer that comes from the rear of the animal. The thinness of this layer allows for good drape and a soft hand. You wouldn’t use top grain since it would be too thick and rigid for clothing. Rather, you’d want leather that's soft and pliable. It's uncommon in the US, but in Europe, you can look for a ‘genuine leather’ stamp to be sure your product is authentic. Articles stamped with ‘genuine leather’ must be 80% of the surface area to be categorized as such. This excludes bonded, coated, and reconstituted leather, as these are only around 30% of the surface area.
MCX: We've talked a lot about furniture and clothing. Are there other avenues where leather is showing up?
JC: Leather is everywhere! I've seen it used in phone cases a lot and for luxury markets. It’s also used for jewelry and accessories. We're also seeing manufacturers wrap leather around curved surfaces and create panels that can be adhered to walls and floors.
MCX: What is the implication of using leather on a floor panel? It seems like it'd be very rough for wear and tear.
JC: It wouldn't be good for commercial use, but it's great for residential use. It would be more of an accent piece than anything, perhaps bordering it with another material but not completely covered the entire floor.
MCX: What is your favorite leather in the library?
JC: I have two favorites: Palm leather, which was sourced from Studio Tjeerd Veenhoven in the Netherlands. It’s made from discarded leaves from the areca palm tree and is 100% biodegradable. It doesn't exactly feel like leather, but it has great durability. Also, Ostrich leg leather from Atlantic Leather ltd. The leather is sourced from South Africa, and I think the pronounced grain is gorgeous and extremely unique.
Interested in learning more about leather? Check out our materials database to find the latest additions of vegan and natural leathers!