The origin of the animal is where it begins. Everything matters and is governed by nature with some man-made influence and manipulation. Like everything in life, these animals are not all created the same. For example, the leather that is harvested from colder temperatures will have smaller, constricted pores, giving a smoother appearance, as evidenced with calf from colder regions being used for high-end exterior shoe surfaces. Yes, this can be manipulated in a ‘re-tanning’ process, but only to an extent. Another example can be plump sheep and lamb from regions like the Netherlands, which have a smooth surface because of the soft wood fencing, but because of their weight, can carry a lot of stretch marks throughout. If cattle are free range and a bank or rancher insists on brands to keep track of the money, there will be brand marks. I can’t tell you how many people point to the rear of the animal and say, ‘oh, there’s a scratch…what’s that?’ If an animal is branded overseas and leaves, it can sometimes be branded twice. Yes, the grain can be corrected but that is a process deviating from the character of the hide. If an animal is fed and penned in, what type of fencing is being used? This can leave marks if an animal makes contact with metal and other sharp fence materials. What bugs exist in that region? This can result in holes made by grubs, ticks, lice and other pests.
Zebras like to kick and bite each other. Alligators like to drag their belly over tough territory. This shows up on the hides. All animals have trauma from the environment and thus, marks somewhere. Once a hide is removed, the process for doing this (fleshing, flaying) can cause ‘scores and gouges’; marks made by the machines used to separate the skin and the knives use to finish the job. If a hide is dropped on the floor, there can be a stain. If a hide is dragged, there can be scratches. This is why skins are graded and separated. Right off the animal, some appear better than others. How they are stored, preserved and transported after this point is also a complex process requiring skill, that will affect the outcome. A key reason why the craft of tanning is so critical. From the slaughter to the process of tanning, whether with chromium salts, tree barks or a combination of, requires balance and care to not damage further, the hide’s appearance.
Grading systems usually fall into grades A, B and C with traditional hides and skins and 1, 2 and 3 with exotics. Yes, if you afford it, you want grade A or 1, especially in the case of exotics. If you are doing a high-end clutch and the belly scales being showcased are full of scratches…um, your clutch sucks…but if you are making bag handles or watch straps…no, you probably don’t need top-grade skins that appear mostly blemish-free. On the flip-side, sometimes a little damage looks cool. ‘Distressed’ leather is a look all by itself, so the use and the perceived appearance is important here. To summarize the grading system technique, it can vary slightly from animal to animal, but is based on the size of the damaged or naturally defected area, for whatever reason, and the proportion it effects with relation to the overall useable area of that particular hide. What part of the hide is ‘perfect?’ (no such thing but we can try) The poorest graded hides can still find a place with industrial uses such as work gloves, straps, padding, and other places where leather’s toughness is still appreciated but it doesn’t have to be ‘pretty.’ The impressive hides in hand a appearance, make their way to luxury goods.
If a hide is being tanned without being refinished (See Glossary) the selection of grade 1 or better skins is more critical, since the natural characteristics of the leather will show, for better or worse. If the hide is being tanned with an additional finish, it is less critical. Sometimes lower grade hides are used here. They may still have a nice ‘hand’ and be fine, but some imperfections will not matter when under a coat of metallic or print. On a side-note, some leather can be a little rougher and this does not necessarily imply it is poor quality either. What is the use? Not all leather is supposed to be ‘butter soft.’ If durability is important, a supple leather is not the most important goal.
We have just selected the hides & skins. After all this, the hide must then be tanned. There are several more commonly used processes to tan leather and suede. Some are combined, like partial vegetable tanning with chrome tanning. Some are traditional and time-tested such as straight chrome tanning, which is the most durable and water resistant. Vegetable tanning involves tree barks. Dyeing the skins will happen in a drum with color, the second drum the leather will be immersed in after the earlier ‘wet blue’ drum with chromium salts to ensure preservation and durability to moisture. So, it starts in the drums with certain ingredients, washed, re-tanned possibly, which is a process to make the skins harder or softer by manipulating the fibers, and then sorted again at different points in the process. A tannery will then stretch, stake or roll-press the skins to flatten them, as they are not naturally flat.
(continued in next part)