Humans have been using skins from animals for clothing and footwear since the earliest times, and although in recent years science has developed man-made alternatives, leather is still the default choice for most of us when it comes to our shoes or boots. Leather is tough, breathable, can be dyed into many different colours and looks great too. But have you ever wondered about the journey the leather takes before it ends up on the shelves of a shoe shop?
Most of the leather we use in the UK comes from cows. Cows are not bred specifically for their skins, and most of the leather we use comes from cows which have been kept for milk or used for their meat. Other sorts of leather made from goat or pig skin are available, but tend to be more expensive and are used for items other than footwear. Once the skin has been removed from the animal it is thoroughly cleaned to remove all traces of blood, hair and any other debris. In the olden says this was done by hand using scrapers and knives, but most leather nowadays is processed by machines in a large factory. The skin is also often bleached to remove colour from it.
Tanning is the part of the process which preserves the raw animal skin and makes it tough enough to use for making clothing or footwear. Tanning also makes the hide more flexible and stops it from cracking as it dries out. The exact tanning process will depend on both the type of leather and the intended end use, but all methods involve dipping the hides in a chemical solution and then slowly rotating them in a large drum or barrel until the chemical solution has penetrated through the entire hide. This process can take several hours or even days, depending on the thickness of the skin.
Once the leather has been tanned it is then thinned out to the required thickness and goes through many other processes depending on what it is destined to be used for. The leather is dyed at this point to give it its final colour and then buffed up to remove any imperfections on the surface. The surface of the leather is oiled to give it a shinier, more flexible feel and appearance, and the polished up to make it into the final leather product to be sold on to the shoe manufacturers.
Shoes and Boots
A company such as El Naturalista boots will buy their leather in bulk, and once it arrives at the factory the skilled workers start cutting out the pieces required to turn the raw pieces of leather into a pair of El Naturalista boots. The signature design of these boots is many shades of leather stitched together, and boots which are made from many stitched pieces take longer to assemble than boots made from few pieces. A skilled shoe or boot maker will design their products to show the core product of the leather to its very best.