Different types of animal skins used for leather
Leather can be made from the skin of all animals, including birds and reptiles, but is most often associated with cow or sheep hide. These types are the most common use in fashion and textiles, as different types of leather vary in how suitable they are for use in garments. For the garment to be sold at a commercial price the skin must be a byproduct of a domesticated animal reared for its meat.
The most popular leather for garments is made from sheepskin followed by cow, goat, buffalo and pig. The buffalo skin is from domesticated animals reared in Asia for meat and milk (used for mozzarella cheese). They are very closely related to our domesticated cows and their skin produces a leather that’s virtually the same. To a much lesser extent, deerskin is used from animals farmed for venison. Leather from a deer is very similar to cow leather.
Ostrich skin from birds reared for their meat and feathers produces leather with distinctive raised markings where the feathers have been removed. It is highly sought after in the luxury bag industry and only rarely used to make garments as a single, short jacket is often sold for several thousand pounds!
Crocodile and alligator leather, from farmed animals, is used mainly for shoes and luggage, while leather from fish is used mainly for high-end fashion handbags and embellishments.
These are the most common types of leather made from different animals, showing how versatile leather can be as a material. As stated, practically any type of skin can be used to make most items normally made from leather, but the suitability and commercial viability vary greatly from animal to animal.
The processes behind different types of leather
If you’re interested in the general process that goes into leather-making, read our previous post before carrying on with this one.
After wool or hair has been removed from the skin, it is ready to be tanned and turned into a piece of leather that has the desired colour, finish and qualities.
There’s a practically infinite number of finishes and effects that can be produced on a piece of leather. DIfferent types of finish include matt and gloss, smooth and rough, plain and embossed, flat and shrunken, sueded and full grain, as well as combinations of these and many others. We’ve gone into more detail on some of the most common.
Sometimes referred to as Full-grain, this is the most common and traditional finish on leather. The skin is tanned, leaving the natural outer grain intact and producing a Nappa finish.
The leather can be drum dyed with a transparent dye which will produce a soft, natural, look and feel, though any marks on the skin could still be visible if untreated. By adding some pigment to the dye the surface will be a more consistent colour.
If a fully pigmented dye is used, the surface will have a very even colouring, but some of the natural texture and characteristics of the skin can be lost. A good comparison is that of using wood dye or gloss paint on a piece of wood – as the gloss paint would cover up the natural surface of the wood, pigmented dye covers the natural surface of the leather. A leather without any pigment is referred to as Analine leather, whereas a leather with full pigment is referred to as Fully Pigmented. Anything in between is Semi-Analine, but the end result can vary greatly in appearance.
Fully pigmented is the most durable of the three, so tends to suit coloured leather jackets that need to withstand a bit more wear and tear. Analine leather is best when you want to retain the most natural look and feel of the hide itself.
To soften the leather or create a more grainy appearance the nappa skins are milled or tumbled. This is done by putting them into a large drum that rotates slowly and as the skins are being moved within the drum they soften.( as happens with normal wear) This is known as milling and the finished skin is referred to as Milled Nappa.
The length of time the leather is in the drum can vary to produce different effects and abrasive “beads” can be added to give the leather an even more worn/antique effect.
The inside surface of the leather is known as suede. When being used for a garment, such as a suede jacket, suede will normally have come from goat, sheep or pig and will have a soft velvety feel and fine nap. This is due to the production method, as the underside of the animal hide is softer and more supple than other methods, such as full-grain leather.
A Nubuck finish is produced when the Nappa surface is buffed or sanded to remove the grain (the epidermis of the skin) and leave a very fine sueded surface that could be easily confused with suede. Generally, it is a tighter grain than suede and made from cowhide.
Pictured below: Walker: Men’s Tan Leather Coat
If only a percentage of the grain of the Nappa surface is removed, it will produce a two-tone texture and colouring. Areas where the grain has not been removed will have a shinier Nappa finish, whereas areas where the grain has been removed will have the matt Nubuck finish that’s lighter in colour. Varying the extent to which the grain is removed can provide virtually infinite different looks and feels for the finished product, so it’s important to find the type of finish you like the most. This is known as semi-nubuck and is normally produced from sheep Nappa.
The primary technical difference between suede and nubuck is that suede is made using the inside of the skin and nubuck is made using the outside of the skin.
Pictured below: Lucy: Women’s Brown Leather Gilet
Different looks and textures
The aforementioned three finishes are the basic starting points from which you can then go on to produce a multitude of other looks and textures, depending on what the leather is required for and what fashion trends are dictating at the time.
Putting wax onto a piece of leather can really bring out the colour and textures of the skin. It can also produce a multitude of effects when applied to different areas of the hide. The wax can be applied by spray gun before production of the garment if an even look is required. Alternatively, it is applied by spray gun or by hand after production of the garment if a more shaded finish is required. The wax can also contain a dye to enhance the effect and produce a two-tone colouration. It is often simply applied to the seams to add character to the leather jacket.
If the garment is lightly washed and then dried it will shrink to give a worn, lived-in look. This technique can vary significantly, from the whole jacket being heavily shrunk and creased to just a slight creasing effect on the seams. This technique is normally combined with some hand waxing, particularly on the seams, to bring out different effect and colour variations.
Sometimes referred to as waxed or oiled leather, this finish produces a look that changes as the garment is worn. It’s so named because of the way the base colour shows through when the leather is stretched or pulled. The material starts as a piece of normal nubuck leather (cow or buffalo hide is normally best) that is then coated with a wax that is normally darker in shade. After applying some heat to make sure the wax has penetrated the surface, it looks more like Nappa.
When the leather is pulled or stretched the base colour shows through, giving a two-tone effect. If the surface is subsequently rubbed, it reverts back to the original colour.
Plated or embossed
This type of finish is normally produced from Nappa leather and involves pressing an embossed metal plate onto the material to transfer the embossed pattern on the plate onto the leather.
It is generally done for two reasons:
- To produce a pattern on the leather and create the look of reptile skin (often for use in handbags and fashion items)
- To cover the natural marks in lower selection skin so that they can be used for general production.
The plating process normally leaves the finished product stiffer than standard Nappa.