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Vegetable tanned leather is created by tanning the animal skin, using a natural product found in plants and trees. Tannins produced by plants and trees, give the roots and stem their natural brown color. By extracting the tannin or boiling the leather with the plant or tree material, the leather is dyed a natural brown color depending on the type of plants or trees used.
Suede is the part of the animal skin that has been “split” from the top layer. Many pieces of suede can be cut from an animal skin. Suede is much softer than regular leather, but since it has been “split” from the animal skin, it is not a hardy or durable material, and suede can dirty easily. This material is not easy to clean as well, and is not resistant to water. Suede is often used to make pants, dresses, bags, shoes, gloves, and furniture upholstery.
The best quality leather is full-grain leather. This type of leather contains all of the markings present on the leather skin. Depending on the type of animal from which the leather comes, it can show wrinkles, scars, or other characteristics of the animal's skin. The leather is not buffed in anyway, and is heavier than other forms of leather. Full-Grain leather can be purchased either as semi-aniline or aniline dyed leather. Transparent aniline dye allows the natural markings of the leather to show through, while further protecting the leather.
The phrase “Top-Grain” is a misnomer when applied to leather. Corrected or Top-Grain leather has had the natural “grain” or surface features removed from the leather. These features are usually sanded away, and are a cheaper quality than Full-Grain leather. This type of leather is processed by “splitting” the layers of the animal skin in a horizontal fashion producing a “top-grain” layer and a “split.”
Boiled leather was often used to make war armor. A thick piece of animal skin is boiled in water, wax, or oil to make the leather hard. After the leather has hardened, it would then be shaped into a particular piece of armor. This method was also used to cover books during bookbinding.
Rawhide is not really leather. It is formed by placing thin pieces of animal skin within lime and drying it. The resulting fabric is quite hard, and can be used to make the tops of drums. The lime will remove the animal hair from the skin, and does not “tan” the hide as with other methods.
Oil-tanned leather results from using oil on animal skins to produce soft, flexible leather. Previously, the oils from animal brains were used to oxidize the skin, and produce more malleable leather. Since these types of leather are produced using labor-intensive methods, they are usually more expensive than the other types.
Chrome-tanned leather is the process where salts of chromium are applied to leather. The leather does not become as hard as vegetable-tanned leather, but retains its color and shape. This type of leather skin is softer than vegetable-tanned leather and is used to make saddlebags and leather chaps.
Alum-tanned leather is created in the process to make alum-tanned leather. The animal skin is placed inside a mixture of aluminum salts and other proteins such as egg yolk. However, the leather skin resulting is not as soft as Chrome-tanned leather. The leather produced is white in color and is used in the book binding industry.