After all these years we can surely say that leather is here to stay. Throughout centuries, leather remains a go-to textile for designers and consumers. We can honestly say that leather is a truly timeless feature of the fashion world that shows no sign of disappearing anytime soon. Today, we bring you a brief history of this awesome textile.
Story from the past
The use of leather dates back all the way to prehistoric times when it began a fascinating journey through the ages.
Where it all began
Primitive man used leather to protect themselves from the elements, often fashioning clothing, footwear and makeshift shelters from dried animal hides. Our ancestors appreciated animal skins as much more than just a by-product from a hunt and saw the benefits they could provide when faced with harsh conditions.
The earliest recorded use of leather dates from the Palaeolithic period, or the Old Stone Age
. Ancient cave paintings depict a man wearing leather clothing, whilst the excavation of Palaeolithic sites has discovered bone tools which would have been used to scrape hairs and loose flesh from the raw skins.
The Earliest method to be used on leather
When it came to preserving and softening the hides, the earliest method known to be used was to stretch them on the ground to dry and then rub them with fats and animal brains. Primitive man is also thought to have discovered the benefits of wood smoke and bark-based tanning solutions in preserving raw skins. These methods would have been passed down through many generations, evolving over time.
Leather in the ancient empires
Leather played a very prevalent role in the ancient world. The Egyptians are thought to have achieved considerable skill in processing leather. It was a textile cherished by Pharaohs and Queens. Historical studies of wall paintings and artifacts in Egyptian tombs show that it was used for sandals, clothing, gloves, bottles, shrouds and military equipment. Reports by historians also suggest that the Egyptians used leather to make water pipes!
Leather quickly developed a reputation as an important industrial raw material in ancient Greek and Roman times, when it was used to craft sandals, clothing, saddles, and harnesses, as well as armour for foot soldiers.
It was Roman invaders who first introduced the manufacture of leather to Britain. Ancient Britons used leather to make footwear, clothing, bags and combat artifacts. Another important use of leather during this period was to cover the hulls, or coracles, of early boats.
The manufacturing becomes more sophisticated
Throughout the centuries, and as societies became increasingly more developed, the processes used to manufacture leather became more sophisticated. By medieval times, the majority of towns would have had a tannery, where professional tanners and leather craftsmen started to maintain ownership of tools and control the supply of materials.
In the 19th century
, when demand for new kinds of leathers was booming, an alternative and much quicker method to vegetable tanning was invented: chrome tanning. This proved to be a radical shake-up in the leather industry.
The technique of chrome tanning, which is still frequently used today, uses a solution of chemicals, acids and chrome salts to dye raw hides. When this process is followed, a piece of tanned leather can be produced in as little as one day. The speed and relative ease of this process compared to vegetable tanning suited the rapid development of industrialisation. Chrome tanned leather was also much softer and suppler than hard and thick vegetable tanned leather, meaning it was perfect for modern footwear, fashion and upholstery.
Leather in the present day
Advances in technology have facilitated continued improvements in the leather industry, with the aesthetics, feel and applications of leather expanding greatly. Today, contemporary fashion designers and modern leather craftsmen often take inspiration from our ancestors, drawing on the principles of traditional craftsmanship to create timeless pieces for our wardrobes. Because of the high cost and expert level of craftsmanship involved in the processing of genuine leather items, leather has become synonymous with luxury.