Leather, a material used by humans for thousands of years, holds a significant place in the history of civilization. It is considered one of man’s oldest and most valuable discoveries that became a product of the conscious efforts of ancient people to protect their bodies from external danger.
Primitive people hunted wild animals for food and then made rudimentary clothes, shoes, and tents from the skins. Today, leather is hailed for its strength, durability, and flexibility, making it an asset for various product applications, from clothing and footwear to upholstery, accessories, and more. From its humble beginnings as a necessity for survival to its current status as a symbol of luxury and style, leather has played an essential role in shaping human culture and society.
The Origin of Leather Making
Although there is no concrete explanation as to how leather was said to be invented, it was about 400,000 years ago when evidence of leather being made in an area in modern-day Hoxne, England, was retrieved. The study concluded that the stone tools found could have been used to scrape hides, directly related to leather preparation/tanning.
It was then that the process of tanning and refining animal hides into the durable and versatile material we know as leather has a long and evolving history, dating back thousands of years to our early ancestors.
Ancient Civilizations’ Leather Use
How leather started can be traced back to prehistoric times. It was when humans discovered that animal skin could be transformed into durable and flexible materials. When around large enough animals, their skins can be made into clothing. In colder climates, hair on the skin provides excellent warmth. In warmer temperatures, leather can be used to shade and keep cool. Leather craftsmanship is primarily oriented towards function.
The tanning process, which involves treating animal skin with various substances to prevent rotting, was developed by ancient civilizations, specifically the Greeks, Egyptians, and Romans. These early tanners used natural materials such as bark, oil, and salt to preserve and soften leather.
Egyptian tombs dating back to 5000 BC indicate that leather was used to make sandals, clothes, gloves, buckets, bottles, and shrouds for burying the dead. Meanwhile, the ancient Greeks are said to have developed tanning recipes using tree bark and leaves soaked in water to preserve the leather. This is the first mention of vegetable-tanned leather, an established trade in Greece around 500 BC.
The Romans were renowned for their advanced leatherworking skills. They used leather for clothing, footwear, and armor. With the introduction of alum-based tanning agents, tanning improved, making leather more durable and resistant to decay.
Leather in the Middle Ages
Additionally, the Middle Ages saw a popular trend visually related to leather. This is the design of Crakow shoes. This type of shoe has a very elongated, often curved toe with a pointed toe. However, some may find them strange or even humorous. At the time, they served an essential social function. The longer and curlier the toe, the higher the social class.
Leather was also crucial in the Middle Ages, as it was used for armor, saddles, and footwear for knights and soldiers. Also, it became the upholstery material of choice for chairs, especially dining sets, because it was easy to clean and maintain with no absorption of food smell.
Leather in the Renaissance and Enlightenment Era
Leather and leather crafts during the Age of Enlightenment moved from the technical development of things to the socio-political side. With many vital leather industries established worldwide and major world powers moving in and controlling new lands, the focus was on controlling leather’s production, distribution, and trading side.
During the Renaissance, leather continued to evolve, consistent with the aesthetic trends of the time. This era saw the rise of leather in fashion, with elegant and intricate leather garments becoming increasingly sought after. Also, advances in printing led to the mass production of leather-bound books, leading to increased demand for high-quality leather.
Leather Production during the Industrial Revolution
Moving forward, the spread of industrialization and machinery from the 18th to 19th centuries created a demand for new types of leather, such as belt leather for driving machines. The invention of the automobile, the need for softer, lighter shoes with fashionable designs, and a general increase in living standards created a demand for soft, supple, and colorful leather.
Further, leather became a leading material in vehicle production. Because of its quality and comfort, it has been used for seating production in the history of the transportation and furniture industry. It has always been the ideal material for making saddles, harnesses, and shoes.
This leads to a need for resources and raw materials necessary for these machines’ production, operation, and maintenance. It also led to the development of machinery to make many manual production steps easier, faster, and more accurate.
Modern Leather Production
Leather remains a versatile and sought-after material in the 21st century. Modern technology has facilitated innovation in the leather industry, as developments in chemicals and sophisticated processing methods have greatly expanded the look and feel of leather and its possible applications. Leather was the material for commercial and residential furniture and automotive, aerospace, and marine applications. Further, mechanized processes are improving so that some can replace the manual stitching often required on certain leather goods such as books, shoes, gloves, and handbags.
Synthetic leather came to life as modern technology changed the market. While synthetic leather has been around since the 19th century, in 1963, the first significant imitation (synthetic) leather was produced. It is typically made from a polyester (plastic fiber) base with a polyurethane (plastic) coating.
More and more companies are using synthetic leather, rubber, and plastic for their products. Demand for genuine leather has naturally decreased. Additionally, the global economy is abandoning the outsourcing model. The idea is that by shifting production to countries with lower wages and raw material costs, they can be produced more cheaply, leading to cost savings.
Further, contemporary times brought consumers to consciousness regarding sustainable and ethical leather production practices, which have gained importance with the rise of synthetic alternatives and increased awareness of animal welfare concerns.
It is undeniable to say that today, leather remains a symbol of durability, luxury, and craftsmanship. Leather, a material deeply tied to the history and existence of humanity, has played a vital role in our existence for thousands of years. Produced from animal hides, leather has been used for various purposes, from clothing and shelter to tools and writing materials. Leather’s historic journey is a testament to human ingenuity, adaptability, and the enduring appeal to create inventions proving human’s limitless innovations.