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The Story Of Leather

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

The leathers used in the wardrobes of men, women, and children are numerous and varied and are supplied by almost all the countries of the world. The skins and hides of such animals as cattle, sheep, goats, deer, kangaroos, and horses; such reptiles as snakes, lizards, alligators, and sharks; and from ostriches, when properly prepared serve mankind in the form of belts, gloves, purses, shoes, traveling bags, and in many articles used in industry.

Preparation for Tanning. Before the skins or hides are subjected to the all-important process of tanning they must be thoroughly prepared. The hair, all preservatives and dirt must be removed by washing in chemicals and scraping with knives. After a soaking in a suitable solution to open the pores the hides and skins are pickled in a salt solution to prepare them for tanning.

Tanning. The transformation of hides into leather, called tanning, consists of from twenty to eighty treatments, depending on the type of leather desired. The tanning is done by one of four methods:

1. The vegetable process, which employs liquors and extracts from fruits, nuts, barks, and woods.

2. The chrome process, in which the hide is subjected to a solution containing some salt of chromium.

3. A combination of the vegetable and the chrome processes.

4. The alum or combination of alum and chrome process, which is used on skins to be made into white leathers.

Special types of tanning are required for certain leathers: sheepskin, for the making of chamois, and buckskin require an oil dressing that gives a very soft, pliable leather; formaldehyde is used in the dressing of doeskin. Some types of tanning require from four to six months; others may be performed in four to eight or more hours.

The Finishing of Leathers. Many treatments are necessary before the tanned leather is ready for its designated use. In order to remove all pieces of flesh as well as to secure uniform thickness the leather is shaved on the flesh side. If too thick for certain uses it is split into two or three thicknesses. The top thickness, known as the grain split, shows the grain markings on the upper side of the hide. The lower thickness is known as the flesh split. Splits are used for many purposes, such as upholstery for furniture, book covers, and inexpensive luggage. They are not particularly durable, and articles made of split leather should be labeled to that effect but they are not always so designated.

As the actual tanning of hides and skins removes their natural oils they must be lubricated with such oils as neat's-foot, castor or codfish oils, and egg yolks after they have been thoroughly worked to remove all traces of the tanning solutions and dried. The leather may be dyed in large drums during this oiling or "liquoring" process, or directly after. If afterward, the dye is applied by means of brushes. Liquoring is followed by the process of staking which softens the leather evenly as well as removes from it most of the stretch. The remainder is re-moved by stretching the leather on metal frames or tacking it to boards. When dry the leather is trimmed, undesirable pieces being removed.

Special Finishing Processes. The final appearance and texture of leather depend on its quality and intended use. Leathers scarred on the grain surface are buffed with an emery wheel ; those suitable for a bright finish are treated with several coatings of special dressing and "boarded." This consists of folding the leather over on itself and pressing the fold with a board. The glazing operation consists of striking and rubbing the leather with a glass cylinder subjected to strong pressure. Glace kid is largely used for gloves and shoes. Dull finishes are obtained by running the leather over a special type of busking wheel. As a final finishing process the leather is pressed either with a hand iron or in an hydraulic press to smooth out the leather and make it lie flat.

In patent leather a mirrorlike surface is given to the grain side of calf, cattle, horse, goat, and kid leathers of vegetable or chrome tanning. The skin of tanned leather is stretched on frames after all excess oils from the liquoring operation have been removed and subjected to a coating of banana or linseed oil combined with dye and a varnishing coat of a flexible lacquer, and carefully dried.

Calf and kidskin are made into suede leather by subjecting the flesh side to carborundum wheels and raising a soft, very fine nap. Special types of .staking and stretching operations give great pliability to the leather.

The natural grains of reptile leathers are simulated by embossed leathers, chiefly calf. An engraved metal plate is placed over the leather and with great pressure the markings are stamped on. The leather is then colored by brushing, spraying, and, at times, by stenciling.

The following leathers are commonly used in wearing apparel and accessories:

Alligator. The belly skins of this reptile are tanned by a special combination process, softened, dyed, and smoothed on the surface. They make very durable shoe and luggage leathers as they are highly resistant to scuffing and do not scratch or crack readily.

Buckskin. Deerskin is the source of genuine buckskin, which is expensive, porous, therefore cool, and pliable. This leather stretches and scratches rather easily. As it is oil-dressed it is suitable for washable gloves. The grain side of the skin is buffed to produce a velvety suede finish. The full-grained deerskin is also used for gloves. Buckskin is very frequently replaced as material for shoes by cattle hide dressed to resemble it.

Cabretta. The hair sheep, cabretta, furnishes a strong leather that closely resembles kidskin and is used for gloves (capeskin) and shoes for women and children.

Calfskin. Calf leathers are the hides of very young cattle. They are strong, supple, and porous, with a distinct and fine-grained surface. They stretch and scuff but slightly and are in very general use for shoes.

Capeskin. The leather obtained from the hairy sheep from South Africa shipped from Cape Town and named after that town. As it is tough, flexible, as well as light and washable, this leather is excellent for gloves for ordinary hard wear. Cape is somewhat heavier and stronger than kidskin, which it resembles closely, and is dip-dyed, the color showing on both sides of the skin.

Chamois. This supple, porous leather was originally provided by the skin of chamois but today is usually made of the flesh split of sheepskin tanned with oil.

Chevrette. This is a glove leather from the skins of grass-eating kids.

Kidskin. Young goats furnish a light-weight, thin, rather strong, and exceedingly pliable, fine-grained leather largely used for gloves and shoe uppers as well as shoe linings. The leather may be finished in one of several ways: it may be given a dull or "mat," a semi-bright or a full glazed finish, or be covered with gold or silver leaf for use in evening shoes.

Lambskin. The skins of young lambs are tanned to simulate doeskin, and gloves of lambskin are frequently sold as kidskin gloves. Lambskin is pliable, thin, but with a loose grain that renders it susceptible to abrasion.

Mocha. Genuine and high-quality mocha leather for gloves is made of the skins of Arabian blackhead hairy sheep raised near the town of Mocha, from which the leather receives its name. A soft, velvety nap is raised on the grain side of mocha so that in appearance this leather resembles suede but is heavier and less harsh and wears better for gloves. Some mocha gloves are washable. The most common color is gray.

Ostrich. South African ostrich leather makes desirable shoes of nearly all types. It stretches sufficiently for the comfort of the foot and is porous and resistant to scuffing. It is also used for bags and novelty leather articles.

Patent Leather. The skins and hides of horse, cattle, calf, goat, and kid are used in this specially finished leather. See p. 224. Leathers with this finish tend to scratch and crack unless very well cared for.

Pigskin. For such merchandise as gloves, luggage, and wallets the skins of hogs from South American countries make enduring, service-able leather. The grain surface is characterized by groups of minute holes from which the bristles have been removed. The toughness and pliability of genuine pigskin make it desirable for washable gloves suitable for sport and general wear.

Reindeer Skin. The skins of reindeer are sometimes tanned for use in gloves. They are extremely durable, as they are close-fibered; they have the appearance of very heavy mocha and are very expensive.

Sealskin. Pin seal leather, so largely used for handbags and purses, somewhat less commonly for shoes, is obtained from the hair seal. It possesses a distinctive pebbly grain that is soft, flexible, very durable, and not easily marred. Frequently calf and goat skins are finished to imitate pin seal.

Sharkskin. This very tough but expensive leather is highly resistant to scuffing and to moisture, two characteristics that make it desirable for footwear and luggage.

Sheepskin. Because of its flexibility, sheepskin makes satisfactory gloves and sports coats, but its sponginess and its tendency to stretch easily render it less desirable for shoe leather. It is finished to simulate chamois.

Snakeskin. The skins of watersnakes, cobras, pythons, and boas when properly tanned, softened, staked, and glazed make thin, serviceable leather for shoes. Their hard grain causes ,them to mar but slightly and to require little care.

Suede Leather. Calf and kangaroo are excellent for suede shoe leathers, the calf being used most commonly on account of its abundance and availability. Lamb, sheep, and goat skins buffed on the flesh side make satisfactory gloves. Unless suede leather is well dyed the color may crock. This characteristic should be noted before purchasing gloves or handbags of this finish. See p. 224.

Care of Leathers. Satisfactory service from an article made of leather depends in large measure upon the care given to it. Under no circumstances should wet leather be dried quickly or in great heat. Experts recommended that heat that can be borne comfortably by the hand is sufficient to dry the wet leather and will not hurt it, and slow drying will cause it to shrink but little. Wet shoes should be stuffed with paper or placed on shoe trees to preserve their shape while drying. A light coating of castor or neat's-foot oil well rubbed into leather shoes, bags, and similar articles restores the natural pliancy of the leather, prevents cracking, and makes it more waterproof. A good cream used to polish shoes helps to preserve the leather. Articles made of patent leather should be cleaned and polished with neutral soap and water rather than polishes, which tend to dull this particular finish. Shoes made of patent leather resist cracking if they are warmed very slightly before being worn in cold temperatures.

Buckskin and all suede shoes should be freshened with a cleaning solution containing a matching dye, then brushed with circular strokes with a stiff, fine bristle brush.

Dry cleaning is advisable for dark-colored gloves and all leather gloves not specifically stamped as washable unless experience has proved them to be washable. Chamois and doeskin, pigskin, cape, and goatskin are all considered washable; especially tanned deerskin and mocha may also be cleaned in this manner. For most satisfactory results gloves should not be permitted to become too soiled before washing. Authorities on this subject recommend that the gloves be placed on the hands for washing with mild soap suds of moderate temperature. Repeated washings and rinsing in clear water are necessary. Chamois and doeskin should be rinsed finally in soapy water. Grain leathers may be scrubbed lightly with a hand brush. When removed from the hands the gloves should be placed in a Turkish towel, carefully shaped, blown into, and dried slowly and away from all heat. All washed gloves should be gently rubbed before being put on the hands; doeskin and chamois should be rubbed between slightly moist hands.

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