Over 4,000 years ago, Egyptians used leather to create durable tents and body armor for use in battle, in addition to being used in women’s fashion for garments and accessories. Word of this incredible material quickly spread and a booming leather trade economy sprang up in the Nile Valley.
While the leather of ancient Egypt was derived mainly from the hides of native species such as panthers and leopards, leather can be made from a wide range of animal skins and used in a diverse assortment of final applications. Citizens of ancient Greece and Rome relied heavily on goat leather, used in cartography, and pig leather, which was fashioned into pouches for holding water.
In the 15th century, the Moors introduced decorated leather to Spain and Portugal, and these societies were enamored of the leather’s luxurious sheen, richness, and intricate designs. These beautiful materials were used frequently in interior décor as wall hangings, floor mats, and upholstery material.
The popularity of leather continued to take Europe by storm, and became something of a fad in 16th century England where citizens drank ale out of handcrafted leather mugs and the most fashionable members of society sported leather apparel such as tunics and hats.
The popularity of leather was not limited to Europe and Africa, however. Many Native American tribes have long histories of using leather for a multitude of practical and ornamental applications. Working primarily with cow leather, these societies created teepees, moccasins, and clothing from the fabric. The dwellings of great warriors were decorated in leather fringe, and it was also used to create saddles and harnesses for the domestication of horses.
Our infatuation with leather hasn’t faded. It is still one of our most treasured textiles, and is used for an almost infinite range of utility and fashion pieces, such as car interiors, apparel, belts, handbags, shoes, and upholstery. The types of leather available to us to today are much more varied than those available to civilizations past. While cow leather remains the most popular, designers can source leather created from the skins of sheep, pigs, buffalo, deer, and even crocodiles, sharks, snakes, stingrays, and salmon.
The process of making leather is difficult and the materials can be temperamental; thus the production of fine leather requires the talents of skilled artisans. Once the hide is removed from the body of the animal, it is soaked in water to gently remove dirt and foreign materials that may be stuck to the skin or fur. Once the hide is cleaned, the hair is chemically removed by soaking the skin in a calcium carbonate bath. The skin is then pulled through a fleshing machine to remove any pieces of flesh that may be stuck to the skin, after which the material is soaked in a second bath of calcium carbonate, which removes excess proteins. Finally, the hide is tanned either with naturally occurring vegetable tannin extract or chromium sulphate, dried, softened, and customized through cutting and dyeing based on the intended final use of the material.
Two of the most talented producers of leathers today are Pergamena, specializing in calf, goat, and deer leathers, and Atlantic leather, which is the world’s top supplier of incredible fish leathers.
Founded in Germany in the 1500s, Pergamena is now located in the beautiful Hudson Valley, and is celebrated for its incredible, high quality leathers, and commitment to developing eco-friendly tanning techniques and creating strong relationships with the independent local farmers from whom they source their hides.
While Pergamena creates beautiful leathers from traditional animal skins, Atlantic Leather has developed an innovative process that creates striking and unique leathers from delicate fish skins. Based in Iceland, the tannery is committed to environmental responsibility and creates leathers from the skins of salmon, perch, wolffish, and cod that are a by-product of the food industry.