Natural leather, also known variously as undyed/nume (Japanese term)/unfinished leather, is very closely associated with the denim hobby.
Both leather and denim have the potential to age beautifully, becoming more aesthetically pleasing the more you use the item.
Similarly, if well made and in the hands of expert craftsmen, can be made into garments and accessories that will last many years.
I would like to share some of my thoughts & experiences regarding the remarkable material that is vegetable-tanned undyed leather.
Isn’t it remarkable how does this
Well, if the idea of having items which evolve uniquely with age according to your actions is something you like, then natural leather is for you!
Here are some considerations, other than the quality of construct, when it comes to buying a nice piece of natural leathercraft:
1. What type of hide is it? (i.e. what animal? what sex? what age?)
2. Which cut of the hide is it? (i.e. back? butt? belly? leg? tail?)
3. How was this leather made? (i.e. vegetable tanned (and if so, what type)? chrome tanned? brain tanned? a chrome/veg mix? others?)
4. How has the leather been finished? (i.e. unfinished/natural? dyed (if so, what kind, how deep, etc)? distressed in any way?)
6. Quality of burnish?
7. How much oil/fat is in the leather?
8. Density and pronunciation of the grain?
I’m sure there are other factors, but this is off the top of my head…
Obviously, what leather is good, and what is not really depends on the application as well as individual preferences.
Let me go through each point with a bit of opinion then 😛
1. This point is kind of obvious, but for the most part, the natural leather hobby involves cattlehide goods (or maybe horsehide occasionally).
Obviously, an wallet or belt made of elephant skin will outlast a wallet made of cattlehide or horsehide by many years (even if assuming same thickness), but the cost is many times greater and maintenance more difficult.
Horsehide, in turn, is mostly stronger than cattlehide and relatively impermeable to moisture – making it ideal for work wear, but at a slight increase in cost.
Buffalo skin, compared to it’s cattle cousins, is softer but has a stronger grain.
Elk & deer hide, whilst not as robust as bovine hides, is more flexible and have finer grains.
Kangaroo skin, while thin, has the highest tensile strength of any leather.
, etc, etc, etc.
In mammalian skin, hides from male beasts are more valued than hides from female beasts, because male hormones tends to make the dermal tissue thicker & denser in adulthood.
The age of the beast is similarly important, for example when comparing calf hide, steer hide and skin from an old bull:
* Calf hide will be softer, thinner, smoother (ideal for wallets and other leather goods, or fashion pieces)
* Steer hide will be thick, strong, fairly smooth (ideal for Americana accessories :P)
* The old bull’s hide will have an amazing grain & thickness, but age would have caused fatty deposits in the dermal tissue and degradation (browning effect) of collagen tissues & related matrices, which translates to a weaker junction layer and a softer hide.
2. Different cuts from the hide of the same animal can be dramatically different in some species (think ostrich, crocodile, etc), yet have more subtle but important differentiations in others.
When considering cattlehide, just keep in mind that belly skin is for budget items.
E.g. When you are getting your belt made, insist on butt or back cuts.
3. An unfinished vegetable tanned is preferred here, since it allows the greatest development of an unique patina with age.
For difference between vegetable and chrome tanning, consult google (too big a topic to discuss here, and there are better people to ask than me :P)
However, it must be stressed that not all vegetable tanned leathers are the same!!!
‘Veg tan’ has become a marketing gimmick nowadays, with every brand and their labels doing a veg tan item.
My best advice is to find yourself a good leathersmith, and work with him to choose a good hide!
E.g. My recent obsession with oak bark tannage, a process which is superior to the average 2 month ‘veg’ tannage that most natural leathers are made from.
4. Pretty self explanatory; if you want to have some fun and finish the leather yourself, an undyed/unfinished leather is a must.
There is not much evolution to be had, in terms of the colour, if the leather has been dyed through; the grain can still age nicely and create a lovely patina though, even in black dyed leather.
5. Thickness as determined by application, I guess.
A 12 oz wallet would be silly, but so would a 6 oz belt.
For a cattlehide belt, the minimum thickness I find acceptable is 10 oz, but I prefer something between 14 and 17 oz.
It depends on your style and your build too; I’m sure not many women would want a 15 oz leather grommet around their waist.
Just keep in mind that when I say thickness, I refer to the thickness of a single layer of hide.
I personally don’t like double or triple layered stitched belts – since I have found that they do not mould well to the body, and are not as durable.
6. I think a great burnish is a sign of a great leather craftsman.
Although some prefer to leather the edges and backside untreated for a more rustic evolution with age.
To each there own, but if there’s going to be burnished edges, then it better be a good one.
Either all or nothing – something in between is not acceptable.
7. This is important.
Generally you will find that unfinished leather is lighter and less ‘solid’ than finished leather, even if they are the same thickness and come from the same cut of the same piece of hide.
This is because, by virtue of the leather being unfinished, it will not have as much oils & fats within it’s fibres.
More on this topic later.
8. This is also important.
From the grain you can assess the quality of the leather and it’s tannage.
E.g. The oak bark tannage, using 12 months or longer of progressively stronger tanning liquor, produces a leather which has terrific grain pronunciation which is heavier, stronger, more flexible and ultimately more durable than the average 2 month vegetable tan – this is why Terry’s belts kick the asses of even belts made by respected Japanese Americana companies.
Other very good leathers which goes above and beyond your average veg tan leather can be found in Kawatako’s higher-end offerings, etc.
That’s why I recommend getting your leather goods from leather craftsmen directly – you’re going to pay much more for uncertain quality if you get your stuff from big brands which dabble in a bit of everything.
Finally, I would like to rant on about the care of unfinished, vegetable-tanned leather.
Much like the common ‘should I wash my denim’ dilemma, people are split into to camps when it comes to leather evolution and maintenance.
Method 1: Use the leather items as is, oiling only after a year or longer (or maybe never)
This method is akin to the “I will never wash me jawnz” mentality – whilst it will produce wear ‘n tear results very quickly, it is ultimately bad for the leather.
The durability and appearance of the leather is adversely affected in the long term.
Using this method, your leather goods will look like something dug up from the mines of Nevada in a couple of years…but this is not the way it’s meant to be!
The changes will look very harsh; the subtle nuances in grain development and patina formation will be lost.
The grain damage and spot darkening might appear vintage, but is fairly ugly to the experienced enthusiast – but again, this is opinion – people who tend to go for the workwear/Americana trend will like this beat-up appearance, not so much the ‘pure’ leather hobbyists.
Method 2: More frequent use of appropriate maintenance agents
This is the only way to bring out the full potential of the leather, to achieve a truly beautiful patina – where the grain development is maximised and the colour/tone change is in balance with the texture of the grain.
By giving the leather adequate nourishment, you will ensure that your leather goods will not only look good after 1 or 2 years, but also 5 , 10, 15 years down the track.
This is a case where the tortoise wins the race; true beauty can only be achieved with care and patience.
So, what type of maintenance agents should I use?
Well, for boots and other less ‘delicate’ leather items, you could use a cream/wax/polish/mix made by respectable brands.
For thing like wallets, key clips, belts and pouches, I prefer more delicate treatment without too much artificial chemicals.
Some people like to use mixtures such as Obenauf’s products, which is all well and good.
But I’m a simple man, and I like to use simple multilayer treatment methods.
My method involves 1 or more layer of pure horse oil or neatsfoot oil (depending on how dry the leather is) and 1 layer of pure beeswax to seal the deal.
How often, and how much you use maintenance agents really depends on the leather, degree of wear and personal preference.
With experience, you will not only know when to care for your leather goods by sight, but also by touch (this I’m still learning).
Lastly, sun tanning.
Natural leather in it’s original state has a very awkward, pinkish colour – doesn’t match well with most garments.
It’s only after it has achieved a slight tan that it becomes a true marvel of versatility.
Sun tanning is a very quick way of achieving an uniform tan (especially here in Australia), but beware…too much too soon can cause the leather to darken prematurely without any signs of wear or any change in the grain.
Essentially, the aesthetic balance would be thrown off and a bad sunburn will diminish further changes in the tone of the leather – a bit like doing too many machine washes before you start wearing your new jeans.
It’s fine to have a quick tan before using your leather goods – just remember to check on it every so often that it doesn’t get sunburnt or overly cooked 😛
Also keep in mind that for prolonged sun baths, oil your leather first.