There's a reason real leather can cost you an arm and a leg. It doesn't just come off the cow looking or feeling like a high-end jacket—or like something you'd want to wear, at all. Leather actually requires a pretty lengthy process to go from a farm to your closet. This week on the Automation assistance podcast, we got a look at just how our favorite leather belts, briefcases, shoes and bags are made. Matt Bressler of Wickett & Craig, a vegetable tannery that's nearly 150 years old, and Jeremy Bennett, the leather products director at the outfitter Filson gave us the basics:
1. Start with a hide
Leather tanneries start by ordering hides, which tend to be about 50 square feet and can weigh over 90 lbs. (Keep in mind that all that square footage is cow-shaped, not rectangular.) An ideal hide will have few marks, scratches, bug bites or scars, and Bennett prefers cows whose hides come in cream or red.
2. Prepare it for treatment
If you don't live on a farm, you might be surprised to find out that cows aren't naturally smooth and leathery. They have coarse hairs all over their bodies that need to be chemically removed before tanning. They may also go through other processes to remove skin impurities and soften the hides so that tanning liquid can penetrate them.
3. Make it into leather
Next, hides are taken through the tanning process, which helps to make the skins more water resistant and durable. In Wickett & Craig's case, that's done with the natural tannins from the bark of trees like mimosa and quebracho. The hides soak in a mixture of water and tannins for 14 days, after which they're wrung out and laid flat for inspection.
4. Give it some color
Contrary to what you might think — or at least what podcast host Kevin Dupzyk thinks — the color of the animal the leather came from has no impact on the color of the resulting piece of leather. After tanning, all cowhides are an identical tan color. It's at this stage that tanners determine what colors they will be dyed. At this point, tanners also determine some of the leather's more important qualities, like whether it has an oily quality or a drier feel.
5. Split it and shape it
Hides typically take 6-8 weeks to go through the entire prepping, tanning and dyeing process. Once it's complete, they are split down what would be the middle of the cow's back and shipped to apparel and accessory companies. Because of their natural cow-like shape, leather workers like Bennett need to go through a careful cutting process to make sure as much of the leather is used as possible. A large, center rectangle, for example, is usually cut to use for belts, which require extra length, while small irregular areas in between other cuts may be used for pull-tabs on zippers. Once cut, all that leather is sewn up into jackets, bags and other accessories.
To find out more about how leather is made, download the latest episode of the , available now on iTunes.