Have you ever wondered why leather is so popular and has great appeal? Well, let me say that besides resembling fashion prestige, leather was preliminarily used for practical purposes. Explore how leather usage and leather clothes have evolved over time!
In the beginning, it was more of a question of durability than aesthetic admiration when the earliest inhabitants of this planet discovered that animal skins were more practical to wear than to eat. Man’s first real garments consisted of raw hides. Later, in the Stone Age, bone tools were used to clean and sew pelts into crude clothing. Nevertheless, the clothing was not tanned, and, therefore, it was not what we perceive today as leather.
The origins of tanning are unclear. However, the ancient Hebrews are recognized to be the ones who created an oak bark process that is still used today. Leather was a vital trade product throughout the cradle of civilization. History has claimed that the sea-faring Phoenicians permeated the colorful influence of Babylonian embroidered and adorned leatherwork to other Mediterranean countries. Also, in Egypt, numerous leather artifacts that have lasted for thousands of years were found in the tombs of Pharaohs. In addition, since there are a myriad of references to leather in the Old Testament, it is believed that it was during that particular era that people started to utilize leather for different purposes, such as making leather clothes.
The first recorded tanner’s guild appeared during the early days of the Roman Empire. The craftsmanship of sandals and boots was so significant that their quality brought status to the owner. Furthermore, Roman armies found the nomadic Teutonic tribes fully dressed in leather (for protection against the cold weather) when the armies raided the north of Europe. When the Roman armies returned to Rome, the soldiers adopted the barbaric custom of wearing leather pants, called braccae. The Emperor tried to stop the phenomenon, but to no avail. Eventually, all men won over to the new style.
During the Renaissance, tanners’ guilds existed all over Europe. Leather was used for clothes and other garments such as gloves, vests called jerkins, jackets, and boots. Further, when the Europeans arrived in America, they found Indians wearing clothes made of buckskin or buffalo hide. The Indians used all parts of the animal when they hunted for food, clothes, and shelter. When the colonists settled in the New World, they learned the oil tanning method from the Indians and supplemented it to the knowledge they had with them from Europe. Tanneries were in existence throughout the colonies by the end of the 17th century.
A hundred years later, a break-through was made when it was discovered that oak bark was not the only plant derivative that could be used for tanning. Extracts from other plants popular in North America–the bark of hemlock and chestnut trees–proved to be equally effective.
Leather production became less onerous and affordable during the nineteenth century where there were many advances made in the leather industry. For instance, an American chemist devised a tanning method using chromium salts that took a few hours in lieu of the weeks or months needed for vegetable tanning. In addition, machines were developed that cut, even further, the time needed to make leather.
Today’s leather has to go through several steps of cleaning and soaking before tanning. Then, the hides are sorted, graded, and split into varying thickness by machines. Some skins are chosen to make suede, where the flesh side of the skin is buffed to produce its characteristic pile. This process is followed by tanning, using either chemical or vegetable tans, depending upon the type of leather desired. Next, the skins are washed, pressed, and polished. Some skins are oiled, greased, or waxed. Others are dyed in many colors, usually with coal tar or aniline dyes.
Finally, as history has attested, leather methods will be constantly improved over time. And we are grateful for the richness and affordable variety available to all of us! A lot of what we know now is because of our innovative, industrious anscetors.
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