Tan that Hide.
Veg vs. Chrome Leather
Now that all the nasty imposter leather is out of the way, let’s focus on getting to know more about the types of organic leather we work with here at Leatherworks. All animal skins (hides) have to go through a tanning process to become useable leather. The two mainstream methods used today are vegetable tanning and chrome tanning.
Vegetable, or ‘veg’ tanning is an ancient (think 1,300 BC) process. Back in the day, some clever person discovered that animal hides could be preserved by curing them with vegetable oils, colouring with tree bark, and other natural materials. During the tanning process, tannins from the bark colour the leather in a range of natural, earthy tones, from beige to tan to mahogany to black. It’s a time-consuming process for the tannins to soak through the thick hides. The resulting veg-tanned leather is thick – up to 6mm.
Because of its thickness and strength, veg-tanned leather is most often used for sturdy products like belts, saddles, straps, harnesses, bridles, slings, and footwear. Those Roman sandals you wore to school in the summer? They were probably made from veg-tanned leather. Veg-tanned leather is the strongest type of leather, but it does have a few drawbacks. If it dries out too much, veg-tanned leather can become dry and cracked over time. Because of its thickness, it’s difficult to colour veg-tanned leather with dye or pigments as they have to naturally soak through.
Veg-tan for design
Because of its strength and thickness, veg-tanned leather is also a great option for interior design and architectural leather elements. As part of a super-yacht fitout we were involved with, we covered an amazing avant-garde balustrade with a brown/black veg-tanned leather from Scandinavia.
Chrome (chromium) tanning was developed in Europe in the 19th century. With chrome tanning, the animal hide is cured with chromium mineral salts, a much faster and cheaper process than veg tanning. The resulting chrome-tanned leather is softer, thinner, and more flexible than veg-tanned leather, so it’s perfect for making leather clothing, bags, upholstery, and other flexible leather products. Unlike veg-tanned leather, chrome-tanned leather lends itself to colouring with dyes and pigments. The vibrant shades in our iPhone wallets, are made possible using dyed through chrome tanned uber soft leather.
What do you use at Leatherworks? We use a mixture of veg-tanned and chrome-tanned leather. Because veg tanning is so much more expensive and time-consuming, most tanneries around the world now use the chrome tanning method. That includes New Zealand tanneries, which have all switched exclusively to chrome tanning. Our ethos is to use New Zealand leather as much as possible, so the majority of our leather is New Zealand produced, chrome-tanned leather.
I thought you guys used ALL New Zealand leather?
We use New Zealand leather wherever it’s practical, but for some applications, we need the strength and/or thickness that we can only get from veg-tanned leather. For example, the strong, hardy straps of our Swagger & Hide satchels are made from American veg-tanned leather, while the flexible body of the satchels is made from New Zealand chrome-tanned leather. Our veg-tanned leather is mostly imported from the USA, with a small portion coming from Scandinavia.