The impact of chemical solutions on the history of leather

19 May 2017
In this day and age, we consider it normal that a bag or a pair of shoes lasts for a considerable amount of time. But animal hides if left untreated are not by nature designed to last a very long time. But how did mankind find out how to preserve leather, and how to create what we today know as one of the most durable and versatile materials in the world?

Animal hides as protection
The use of animal hides as protection from the elements is over 60,000 years old. Pre-historic man used the fur and skin of that what they had hunted, and used it to create the first clothing. But as hides decay rapidly they had to find ways to preserve the hides.  They had found out that a hide gets tanned and preserved naturally when leaving it on the forest floor due to the chemicals released by the decaying leaves, and they started to experiment with preserving the hides by immersing them in a bath of organic materials such as leaves and fruit. The bacteria would loosen the hair and dissolve the residue and fats left on the skin, leaving the hide.

Man’s connection to leather was born. Out of respect for the animal, and to keep their families warm people used the hides, the first use of leather became a very conscious and sustainable choice. 

Add a bit of color and fashion is born
The discovery of Alum as a mineral to preserve hides really created a big step forward. It made the leather pale which meant that it could be colored. The earliest leather was colored by substances available in nature. The hides where then finished with oily or protein-based materials like oil, wax and even blood or eggs to get the desired end result. The coloration of the leather meant that you could have something customized to your taste. This innovation marked the addition of leather as a material suitable for use in fashion. From the armor of the romans indicating their legion to the use of leather in chairs, furniture, shoes and other goods, the stature of leather was firmly established.

Industrialization
With the onset of the industrial revolution, the need for a faster more standardized process became apparent. At the end of the middle ages, chrome salts where introduced to improve production and the tanning pit was replaced by rotating wooden tanning drums. This evolution paved the way to the mass production of leather as it cut the time for tanning hides from 8 months to a mere couple of days. And by the 19th century the need for colorful garments and shoes to express ones’ individuality, and the need for thinner more flexible leather meant that vegetable tanning was replaced by chrome tanning all together. In 1819 patent leather was responsible for a whole new dimension of leather variations in fashion strengthening leather as a luxury article. The first polymer resin was used in the second world war when Phenol Formaldehyde Resins where invented. 

The possibilities in variations by using different tanning and processing methods led to the use of leather in fashion, leather goods, and home interior. The versatility in color and the durable character of leather meant that it was very suitable to use as a material to define fashion and trends.

The development of chrome-free tanning
Chrome tanning has been the norm for preserving and processing leather for a long time. But several years ago people start working on chrome-free tanning products. These developments led to the birth of Stahl EasyWhite Tan™, a tanning solution that reduces the amount of water, salt and electricity needed to process leather. 

The future
While wet-white products already provide a welcome alternative to the more traditional tanning methods, in the future we will see more alternatives that will create new possibilities. Bio-based products for instance. Companies across the world are interested in alternatives to traditional tanning but sometimes need the extra knowledge to see how it could benefit them apart from being better for the environment. That is why we are educating our customers, partners and students all around the world, and teach them about bio-based and water-based solutions and their importance as a sustainable way to secure a bright future for our industry. For instance our bio-based PolyMatte® which is based on 20% rape seed oil. But also products like Proviera® - Probiotics for Leather™ which are probiotic bio-based beamhouse solutions that will pave the way for a new era of sustainable high quality leather possibilities.

These solutions will help us all to make sure that leather will retain its place as one of the richest, most durable, sustainable and natural materials known to mankind. And that is why we love leather!
Do you have questions regarding this topic: please don't hesitate to contact us