(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #143, November 17, 2000)
“Daddy, where does leather come from?” If you’ve ever asked that question, read on. Most people know that animal skins become leather by a process called “tanning.” But how is leather tanned? What’s the difference between the animal skin before the tanning process and the leather after it has been tanned?
Leather is often irreverently and simplistically referred to as “dead cow,” but the reality is much more complicated. Actually, leather can be made from many different kinds of animal skins; in my collection I have cowhide (durable), pigskin (breathable), lamb (very soft), and even kangaroo (tough as iron). What’s the difference between a “skin” and a “hide”? Generally, a hide is from a large animal, like a cow, horse, ox, buffalo, or zebra. A skin is from a smaller animal, like a pig or lamb.
If leather were truly just “dead cow,” it wouldn’t last very long; an animal’s skin starts to decompose within hours of the animal’s death. Leathermaking is a way of stopping that decomposition, preserving the skin and turning it into something useful and durable. Skin is made of up mostly of water, fat and various kinds of protein including a fibrous protein called collagen. Leather is skin with much of the water and all of the stuff that decays (fat, non-fibrous proteins, blood vessels, muscle, etc.) removed and with the bonds between the collagen fibers strengthened.
People have been making leather for over 7,000 years. Early leathermakers dried hides in the sun to remove much of the water, pounded in animal fats or brain matter to soften the hides, and then preserved them by salting or smoking. Vegetable tanning, which is still practiced today, was developed by the Egyptians and Hebrews around 400 BC and involves soaking hides in solutions of tannin (tannic acid) extracted from plants. (The tannin is what cements the collagen fibers together.) Chemical tanning, particularly the use of chromium salts, was introduced toward the end of the 19th century.
Here’s a modern recipe for a leather vest. I doubt you’ll want to try it yourself, but it will give you some appreciation for the skill, craft, and complex processes that were involved in making the leather you’re wearing.
Take one fresh animal skin (probably cow). Wash and clean thoroughly. Remove hair and epidermis (the thin outer layer of skin) by first soaking the skin for several days in a solution of lime and water to soften the hair and epidermis, and then scraping the hair and epidermis away with a large knife. Now turn the skin over and scrape away any remaining flesh and fatty tissue on the underside of the skin. This will leave the thick central layer of skin, known as the dermis or corium, which is what leather is made from.
Now soak the skin in deliming solution to remove excess lime, soak in enzymes if desired to remove still more perishable proteins, then soak in a chromium sulfate solution to stabilize and strengthen the collagen fibers in the skin.
The dermis of an average cowhide is about 4-1/2 millimeters thick. If thinner leather is desired (and it usually is), split the skin in half using a special machine with a band-type knife. If you don’t have one of those machines, you can just scrape the underside of the skin until you’ve whittled it down to the proper thickness (that’s the way they did it in the old days). Once the hide has been split, the outer layer will become “top grain” leather, which is generally superior to the inside “split grain” layer. (What about all the little bits of leather that have been scraped or shaved off the hide? They are combined with a glue or other binding resin, and the resulting mixture is rolled into sheets of so-called “ground leather”—the leather equivalent of particleboard.)
Next, soak the skin in a dye of the desired color (probably black) mixed with oils and fats to soften the leather. The easy way to do this is in a rotating drum (hence, “drum-dyed” leather). Then stretch the hide out and dry by baking in an oven. Once dry, buff lightly to remove any surface imperfections.
Finally, finish the leather by spraying it with liquid pigment, dry in an oven, emboss it to give it a uniform grain pattern, spray on a clear protective topcoat, then tumble in a heated drying drum to pummel the leather and make it soft. Iron the leather to remove any wrinkles.
You are now ready to mark the vest pattern on the leather, cut out the pieces and sew them together.
Yield: One leather vest.
Two Local Leather Events To Be Rescheduled
The Minnesota Olympus Leather Contest, which was to have happened the weekend of November 11, will be rescheduled for the first part of January, 2001. The event was postponed due to a lack of contestants for the title. If you want to compete, call the Knights of Leather.
MSDB’s Bizarre Bazaar, a leather/fetish vendor mart which was to have happened the same weekend, was also postponed and will now be happening on Saturday, December 16 from noon to 7 pm at Club Metro Underground in St. Paul. At the Bizarre Bazaar, MSDB will also be doing a silent auction to fundraise for the Mr./Ms. Olympus Leather contest. Admission will be $4 in advance or $5 at the door; for more information see MSDB’s website at www.msdb-mn.org. (MSDB still has vendor space available—see the website for details.)
Atons Holiday Fundraiser Seeks Auction Donations
The Atons of Minneapolis will hold their annual Holiday Fundraiser on Sunday, December 3 at the Saloon Bar in downtown Minneapolis. Last year the Atons raised over 700 lbs of non-perishable food items and $3,000 for The Aliveness Project and Every Penny Counts. They are seeking donations of erotic art, new toys like whips & floggers, or gift certificates that can be used for a Silent Auction to benefit The Aliveness Project and Every Penny Counts. If you wish to donate an item please contact Tom. Pictures of donated items can be seen on the Atons website (www.atons.com), and a printed catalog of auction items is scheduled for distribution just before Thanksgiving.