10 Questions to Ask before buying leather
Here you will find ten most important things you must consider when buying leather
If you are a designer looking to make accessories, the chances are that sooner or later you will consider working with leather.
Why? Simply because leather is a very versatile natural material, and much used in the fashion industry. Whether you think of designing and creating shoes, bags or small accessories, belts, gloves or hats - leather is one of the most popular choices for material to work with.
It comes in a great many varieties, it is not hard to find, it is not expensive and believe it or not – it is wonderful to work with. But – just like any material – the quality of it determines the quality of the product you will make.
Unlike fabric – leather has bigger natural wastage and designers unfamiliar with the material will do well to learn some of the basics before buying leather of any kind. Like much in the fashion industry – key information is not so easy to come by – so here is why we lift the veil on some of the basics to make your creative journey easier.
Below you would find ten of the most important criteria you must consider and ask about when buying leather of any kind, for any project.
As leather is a natural material derived from animals, as you can imagine, there are many varieties of leather you will come across. Depending on your choice, the price and usability of the skin will vary.
If you are looking to make accessories or clothing, the most common leather you will come across to use is cowhide. As the name suggests – the leather comes from cows.
Cowhide leather is great for handbags and small leather accessories.
If you want to make belts – you will most likely be advised to look at buffalo leather, for gloves you will look into nappa leather that comes from calves.
Another alternative for a smaller skin that has great texture is goat leather.
And if you wanted to create something unique and very luxury – then using exotic leather like crocodile or lizard is usually what luxury brands most often opt in to use.
Once you know what type of leather you’d like to use and is best suited to your design idea – it is important to consider the type of finish you would like. Not all finishes are available across all leather types, and not all finishes are suitable to all and any design ideas.
The most common finishes you’d encounter are the following:
Plain leather is as the word implies – is plain. No prints and marks – just plain and dyed in different colours. For plain lather to be left plain, usually only the top grade of skins are selected. This means that usually, plain leather is a little more expensive.
Printed leather is usually leather that has some faults and marks which prevented it to be left plain. By stamping print on top of the leather, it allows for imperfections to be hidden as well as create a new texture and look. Printed leathers can be as expensive as plain depending on the quality of the initial raw materials and print.
Laser allows for leather skins to be treated in a new way and create interesting new patterns and texture. Usually, the laser is used to create perforations and holes in the leather in a particular pattern and design.
This leather is achieved when the top layer of animal hair has been left on as the main feature of the leather. Usually, the hair is either dyed or printed on to give a more interesting aspect and selling point to the leather.
This leather is similar to the print leather, but instead of printing on top, it is heavily coated with paint and then finished in high gloss.
The original animal skin is colourless - white or off-white. It can be dyed in two ways:
1 - Dyed-through
Almost always the leather you will choose to buy will be dyed to a specific colour. More often than not, the leather you look and buy will be dyed in a drum (similar to washing machine) and therefore the entire skin will be dyed.
2 - Spray paint
Sometimes it is possible that the original colourless skin is left natural and only a spray paint finish is applied to the top surface of the leather. This is fast way to test new colours, but it is not ideal if you want to use leather for commercial products.
By looking at the side profile of the leather, you would be able to tell if a skin is spray painted (the colour will sit as a layer on top of a white base) or completely dyed through (the entire leather top and bottom will be of the same colour). For commercial use, it is often better to opt-in for dyed-through leather.
How the natural skin is processed affects the end look, feel and ageing properties of the leather. The main 3 types of finish are:
1 - Aniline
This is a high quality leather finishing and widely popular choice for premium brands.
Aniline refers to the dyes that are used in making the final product, once the hide is tanned. It is a special treatment process used on the fine hides. During the manufacturing process for aniline leather, the tanned animal hide is dyed in a drum with aniline dyes.
Aniline dye is a translucent, water-soluble synthetic dye without any insoluble pigments. During the dyeing process, the natural grain including all the markings, scars and wrinkles are brought out in each hide.
In contrast, semi-aniline dye contains a small amount of pigment, which allows the leather to still display its natural characteristics while bringing more colour consistency.
2 - Vegetable Tan or Veg Tan
In other words, this processing of the leather involves natural processes and materials and fewer chemicals.
This type of processing limits the availability of colours – usually, there is less choice and the colours tend to be natural and not as vibrant. One of the best features of vegetable-tanned leather is that it develops a patina over time with prolonged use and exposure to the environment. Usually, this choice of leather is associated with traditional products like shoes, briefcases, wallets and belts.
3 - Pigmented
This is the most durable but is less natural in appearance of all leather types. However, the heavy use of chemicals makes this leather the most durable and because of it, it is used in the majority of furniture and car upholstery. The durability is provided by a polymer surface coating which contains pigments. The surface coating allows the manufacturer more control over the properties of the leather, e.g. resistance to scuffing or fading.
The animal skin, when processed for the leather industry, usually is fleshier and has a certain heavy thickness to it.
For the leather to be made suitable for bags or small leather goods or clothes – the leather thickness must be reduced by a process called “skiving” the leather. It is not uncommon however to buy a slightly thicker leather and skive as part of the manufacturing process as and where needed.
On the contrary, if you bought a thin leather and wanted to create a more structured design, you would need to spend time and effort to back the leather with extra materials to give it fullness and extra thickness.
Consult with your maker regarding the ideal thickness you wish to buy but also be aware that the leather can always be skived down to be thinner as well as it can be backed and made heavier.
The price of leather in the leather industry is often quoted per square meter (m2) or per square foot (ft2). There is no right or wrong – some tanneries prefer one to the other – it is that simple. Learn how to use both and how to quickly convert meters to feet and vice versa. You will hear people speak of both interchangeably.
Printed Leather Price - 59 Eu m2
Conversion formula: m2 / 10.764 = ft2
In other words the example shown above can be quoted as:
Printed Leather Price - 59 Eu m2 or 5.48 Eu ft2
Leather Hide Size
When buying leather, it is important to consider the size of the skin. Knowing the size means that you can buy the right leather for your designs. If the leather size is too small – you may not be able to make certain designs that are large in size.
For example, some bags may have a large front and back panel, and as per the design, you may want that to be a single panel. You need to ensure that you buy a skin large enough to fit the pattern piece. Belts also require a certain size to ensure a single long piece can be cut from one skin.
Knowing the size of the leather allows you to work more efficiently.
Leather Hide Types
In the leather industry, once the leather skin is taken off the animal, it is processed and made commercially viable as a product. As the leather skin is a natural product derived from a living organism, the quality of the entire skin is not the same.
Some parts of the leather have tighter structure, others are looser. Some parts of a large skin like a cowhide are better for some products, and some parts of the skin are less usable.
Familiarising yourself with the different properties different parts of the leather are suitable for and speaking to the tannery you buy your leather from to learn more about what they are selling is an essential part of the process.
Leather Hide Grades
As all leather is a natural by-product of a living organism, no two leather skins are the same. Many animals in the course of their life get bitten by insects or get scratches which remain on their skin as visible marks. Therefore, the leather once processed is separated into grades – 1st selection, 2nd selection and 3rd selection depending on how many marks a skin has.
Most tanneries sell a mix of all 3 selections. On occasion, some may offer only the 1st selection, top grade leather and for that they would usually charge a premium price.
Leather Buying Requirements
Similar to the fabric industry, the leather industry also sells their product with Minimum Order Quantity (MOQ). This is mostly driven by the way leather is processed and dyed.
Few tanneries offer a single skin purchase, unless it is part of a core stock collection. Many tanneries will offer 3-10 skins for sampling, while production MOQ is often 50 m2 and more.
Leather skins are usually selected by the grade and wrapped in bundles (a few skins rolled together) as it is easier to transport them in this way, sort and store them in the production phase. When purchased, delivery of leather comes in bundles, and unlike fabric, often the final measurements can’t be exact.