5 things to look for when buying leather

Thanks so much for all the positive feedback I've had since releasing the Silver Sands Sandals pattern. It really has been lovely and greatly appreciated. 

Since releasing the pattern, I've had several questions from people interested in learning to make their own shoes about things like shopping for leather, what glues are best to use and more. I thought it might be useful to address some of these questions here on the journal in case you're also wondering about similar things. I'll be posting about some of the most common questions over the next few weeks so if you check back regularly hopefully you'll find answers to any queries you might have - and if you have any other questions I haven't covered please let me know and I'll do my best to answer them (either leave a comment below or contact me via the email link in the sidebar). 

So, today I'll begin with one of the most common questions I've received - "What do I need to look for when buying leather?" And my answer is to ask yourself the following five questions: 

1. What type of leather is recommended in the pattern?

There are two main categories of leather that you will use in shoe and accessory making - chrome tanned and vegetable tanned leather. The names obviously refer to the tanning process (the process through which an animal skin is preserved). Leather tanned using chromium salts (hence the name chrome tanned leather) tends to be softer, more supple and more flexible than veg tanned leather, and is available in a wide variety of colours, prints and finishes (some of which you can see in the photo at the top of this post). These characteristics make it very useful for making shoe uppers, bags and other accessories.

Leather tanned using plant matter (known as veg or vegetable tanned leather) tends to be stiffer than its chrome tanned counterpart and is generally a light tan colour. It can be dyed, stamped and carved.  It can be used to make stiffer bags and belts, and in shoemaking is suitable for insoles (as in the Silver Sands Sandals), toe and heel stiffeners and even soling (although this is a special version of veg tanned leather that has been compressed to make it strong enough for soling). 

2. What animal is the leather from?

The strength of a piece of leather, and therefore what items it is suitable to make from it, can vary according to the animal whose skin was used to make the leather. The most commonly used leathers in shoe and accessory making are from cows. Sheep skins tend to be softer and not as strong so this type of leather is often used for linings. You may also see sheep skins where the wool has been left on - these can be used for lovely warm sheepskin boots and slippers.

3.  What thickness of leather is recommended in the pattern?

Just as fabrics come in different weights/thicknesses (for example, cotton drill is a heavier weight fabric than voile), leather too comes in different thicknesses and it is important to know which thickness is appropriate for your project. Obviously, thicker leathers tend to provide more structure to the item you are making whereas thinner leathers tend to drape more. Depending on where you are purchasing your leather, you may find the thickness indicated in millimetres, inches or irons.

4. Does the leather have any awkward markings on it?

When you are shopping for leather, it is worth examining the skin you are considering to see if there are any obvious markings that will interfere with the look of the item you are making. The types of marks you might find are scars from scratches or bites, or in some cases even branding marks. Think about where your pattern pieces might fit on that particular piece of leather, and whether or not you can work around any obvious marks, or perhaps even use them as part of your overall design (having marks on your leather item isn't necessarily a problem, it's just a matter of personal preference). 

5. Does the appearance of the leather fit the overall look you are trying to achieve?

Finally, and this may seem pretty obvious, ask yourself if the piece of leather you are considering suits the look and feel of the item you are planning to make. Does the colour, texture and/or pattern on the leather fit the look and feel you are wanting? Remember that any thicknesses or other characteristics suggested in the pattern are only recommendations, and while they are recommended for a reason it is also okay to vary from that slightly if the leather you like or have available is slightly different. There is usually a way to work around the effect a different leather will have on the construction and functionality of the item you're making. Similarly, if you would prefer to use faux leather for your project, just look for a piece that has characteristics as close as possible to the type of leather recommended for the project, as well as having a look and feel that you like. 

Hopefully thinking through each of these five questions will help you purchase the perfect piece of leather for your next project. And remember, if you have any questions please just let me know.