See how leathercraft has grown and evolved throughout the world, with influences from people over time.
Leathercraft has evolved over thousands of years. Born from necessity, it has evolved into a craft, and art form. Across different regions of the world, the craft has evolved differently, often reflecting cultural needs, forms, and evolutions. Let’s look at an overview of the development of leathercraft across some of the larger world regions.
Some of the earliest confirmed leather tanning tools are found in the Stone Age (5,000 BC) in ancient Sumer (modern-day southern Iraq). The oldest known leather footwear was found in a cave in Armenia, dating from around 3,500 BC. That’s old! Animal hides would often be used for clothing, footwear, and shelters to protect people from the elements.
Use and development would continue into the Bronze Age (3000-1300 BC). Stone tools were still very popular during this period, and leather becoming a more popular material to work with. It was still used for clothing (head coverings, shoes, and general wear), while also finding other protective uses such as in shields used in combat.
This continues into the Iron Age (1200-230 BC).We see continued use of leather in other areas during this time, including for jewelry. One example is a braised arm band around the bicep of a man nearly 6’ 6” tall, quite tall for the time. His fingernails were well kept, signaling he was not frequently engaged in manual labor, and possibly of an upper class. Leather adornments and jewelry during this time might have been considered a luxury.
In Ancient Egypt (3000-300 BC), we see the first written references to leather in Ancient Egypt around 1,300 BC. Leather tanning was also a very smelly process, and as such, tanneries were located far away from where people lived so the odor would not pose an issue.
From here, we begin to see more of a spread of techniques and processes used across Europe.
In Europe, we begin to see more details of leather work in Ancient Greece (800 BC – 0 CE). In ancient Greece, leather craft produced protection for the feet, this time in the form of the very popular sandal. It was continued to be used for defensive purposes in shields, and even expanding uses into bags in which to carry other items.
We see the Ancient Romans (800 BC – 476 AD) using leather in large quantities, essentially as a raw material. It was used for clothing, shoes, shields and belts, harnesses, boots, saddles, and tents. The Roman military was a large consumer of the leather materials.
To produce the leather, Romans would either tan it to produce a softer brown material. Or, they would tan it in alum and salt to produce a soft, paler material. Unprocessed hides provided by butchers could be turned to raw-hide and make a durable shoe-sole.
In the Middle Ages (4 AD – 1500 AD) leather craft popularity and technology continued to develop. Much more was done with tooling, painting, dyeing, and carving. Its uses included clothing, knife sheaths, shoes, parchment, saddles, books, boxes and for some artistic uses too.
The Renaissance (1350s – 1650s) saw a surge in leather craft and the many uses for leather goods. These included shaping, stamping, and moulding for art and functional purposes, as well as extensive use in coats, pants, bracers, dresses, hangars, frogs, pouches, satchels, quivers, hats, shields, and all sorts of bodily protection, as well as protection for horses and related saddlery and accessories.
During the Enlightenment (1650s-1780’s) leather was used as it was previously, with fashioning and finishing techniques improving. Used for book covers, it was also used to create fancier shoes as well as a myriad of military uses and functional purposes as well (satchels, pouches, aprons, bags, belts, hats, etc.)
The Industrial Revolution (1750s – 1900) time period saw huge change in the leather craft industry. Machines of industry allowed much faster production of finished leathers. The machines themselves also benefitted from using leather in the machine belts that drove them. Leather production hit its peak during the middle of the Industrial Revolution.
In 1818 Patent Leather was developed. It is a type of coated leather with a high gloss finish, giving it a very pleasing appearance.
In 1858 Chromium tanning was invented, it utilized minerals and a much faster process than the existing vegetable tanning. It enabled leather to be produced faster, thinner, and softer.
In modern day (1900-today) leather is used in high volumes and across industries. There are several processes for tanning including Vegetable, Chrome, Aldehyde, Brain, and Alum tanning. It is available in several grades, many colors, and used in virtually every area of life.
Almost everyone has something made of leather they use on a daily basis, it might be a wallet, keychain, saddle, apron, hat, or almost anything else. It’s incredible to think how far leather use has come over thousands of years. It’s also amazing how similar some of the processes to produce it and uses for it are, even so many years later. Leather truly is a timeless material.
In North America, we have seen leather used since the early days of the Native Americans. Traditionally, hides were used for housing, clothing, and decorative accessories. Leather was a critical element for everyday-life, and generally a renewable resource given the abundance of wildlife around the region.
As settlers began to arrive in the 1500s and 1600s, we see a close mirroring of the evolution of leathercraft from Europe (as many settlers came from there).
A distinct difference is one of the key differentiators in North American leather today, primarily in the areas of saddle and boot making. The US expansion westward and development of the “cowboy” culture led to the need for leather goods that served those traveling and living out in the Western United States.
Here, we see, mostly developing in the 1800’s, a rich evolution of saddlery, boot-making, belt and holster making, and leather carving/art. To this day, it is a distinct and impressive area of leathercraft, with origins in the American West.
In early times, South America and Africa were a connected land mass.Thus, early origins of the peole, and lifestyles were somewhat similar. The first people were there around 16,500 BC, and we’d see in the Stone Age in general, around 5,000 BC, tools for leather use beginning to be used.
The indigenous people of South America would come to use leather for clothing, shelter, protection, and ornamentation. When European colonization began around 1450, we begin to see more of their technogies and leather uses spreading to this region.
We’d then see a similar arc of leather use and developments here as we do in Europe, leading up into the modern day. Today, South America has one of the largest standing herds of bovine in the world, and are a large source of raw materials for leather production and use.
Africa and South America used to be joined as a land mass, though we see signs of human life far earlier in Africa, beginning around 200,000 years ago. With the oldest leather tools being from around the Stone Age, we can see a parallel between some developments here as well as those in Europe.
Leather would initially be tanned outside, in the sun, and used for clothing and some shelter. Later it would be used for protection (shields, armor, etc.), as well as for functional uses in making harnesses and leather items to support work.
The arc further, in more modern times, supports what we see in Europe and the rest of the world. In Africa, there are about 15% of the world’s bovine population used for leather, and Ethiopia and Kenya are some of the largest exporters in the region.
We first start to see signs of human life in Australia around 70,000 years ago. Unlike most other continents, Australia had a longer period before colonization began, with Europeans coming only by about 1600. Prior to that, animal skins were likely used, with basic sun-tanning techniques, for clothing and functional uses.
With them, the Europeans would bring their advances in leather production and leather goods used for both function and fashion. From this time onward, the evolution of leather would mirror that mostly of Europe.
In Modern day Australia, leather is very common. They also hold the position of generating and exporting some of the most kangaroo leathers in the world. Kangaroo leather is extremely tough, durable, and can be cut thin yet still retain much of its strength, making it a material desired the world over.