LEATHER | ANTIQUITY TO PRESENT
Although one might debate as to how far back the origins of leather date, no one can deny the sweet smell of well-maintained automotive leather. In fact, according to a bevy of historians, the first production of leather may date back as far as 1,300 BCE where animal skins were dried in the sun, then softened by pounding in a mixture of animal fats and brains.
Once this process was completed, natural salts were then added, thereby creating the resilient material which we all know today as leather. At the time, this was the method by which leather was produced to make items such as sandals, bags, quivers, chariot trappings, wristbands, and other instruments from the simple traveler to a Centurion in the Roman army.
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CENTURION ROMAN SANDAL
ANCIENT EGYPTIAN FOREARM LEATHER COMBAT BRACE
Of course, a lot has changed over the last millennia, and with change comes an integration of new processes and manufacturing capabilities. To begin, the first "idea", and I use this term loosely purely because the first motorized vehicles to introduce the first form of leather came directly from horse-drawn carriages, which was the preferred method of travel in the latter part of the 19th century.
HENRY FORD "MODEL T" ca. 1908
While auto manufacturing moguls like Karl Benz, Gottlieb Daimler, and Henry Ford were overwhelmed with producing the first practical automobile, seating was the least of their concerns. As a temporary solution, the first form of seating consisted of cushions and backrests already found in horse-drawn carriages. This material was known as "vegetable-tanned leather" or "natural leather", and it should be noted that these terms were used interchangeably. The term is somewhat self-explanatory as "vegetable-tanned leather" comes directly from plants and trees we see in nature, with oak and spruce bark being the predominant choice among leather manufacturers. In order to prevent any premature decomposition to the leather, "tannins", a mixture of chemical additives, were then added, whereby binding directly to the collagen of the skin to extend the resiliency of the hide. Additionally, this gave the leather organic antimicrobial properties for extended life. Without this agent, the leather would fail and decompose at a rapid rate.
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EXAMPLE OF "TANNINS" IN ITS ORGANIC POWDERED FORM
RESULT OF INTRODUCING "TANNINS" INTO EVERYDAY MODERN ITEMS AFTER PRODUCTION
Right after Henry Ford gave birth to the Model A in 1908, automotive leather started to take on a new form with additives such as natural oils and fats being thrown into the mix as automotive leather finally became water repellent. As time progressed, the masses called for technological improvements.
As a part of natural progression, "pigmentation" soon came into the picture. Thankfully, "pigmentation" opened up the door to combating high humidity and dirt. From the 1920's through the late 1970's and 80's, "vegetable-tanning"was still the preferred method by which leather was produced. While auto manufacturer pioneers pushed for dominance in the marketplace, "chrome-tanning" made its way into the marketplace with an American chemist, Augustus Shultz, patenting the industrial-savvy process.
CHROME-TANNING OR CHROME-TANNED LEATHER
VEGETABLE-BASED LEATHER OR VEGETABLE-TANNED LEATHER
The fundamental difference between these two methods is that while "vegetable-based tanning" was highly popular, it was also time consuming. "Chrome-based tanning" streamlined the process with synthetic dyes and a process known as "fatliquoring" or "re-greasing" was at the forefront of the operation. This process simply takes the natural evaporated oils from the hide and then reintroduces a set of water-soluble oils back into the leather to maintain a certain percentage of softness and an overall attractive appearance. While this method is mass-produced, it's also more susceptible to blistering and cracking. In present day, "chrome-based tanning" is the method of choice for an overwhelming majority of auto manufacturers. Other non-related industries such as shoes, handbags, and sports equipment also follow suit simply because the process cuts industrialization in half, while other luxury brands such as Audi and Porsche remain as chrome-free manufacturers.
As mass production continued, customization became highly-popularized with processes such as "embossing", while other specialized materials such as "alcantara", "split leather", and "grain leather" made its place in the high-end luxury market.
In its condensed version, "split leather" is the process by which a tanner strips the outer layer of hide and accounts for the millimeters of thickness that's currently present. Once the calculations are made, the tanner then splits the hide and separates the flesh side from the grain side.
Not unlike that of "split leather", "grain leather" is handled in a similar fashion, except the difference is that "grain leather" sets aside the higher density of grain, which is both more dense and fibrous in nature, which in turn makes this more valuable and expensive to the consumer.
"Alcantara" is, in essence, a mixture of synthetic textiles mixed with a suede-like microfiber-pile resulting in a material that both looks and feels like velvet.