This is a big topic, and one that I am fairly new to. This week, accompanied by three interesting dressmakers, I went to a leather wholesaler – Storm in Hackney. Run by Charlie and George, originally from Cyprus, with Nigerian Peter taking the money and bringing out a freshly cooked lunch for the three gents while we were there. They have fish three times a week from the local market, with meat twice, accompanied by a big Cypriot salad.
First about the shop. It is amazing. Every type of leather that you may want to use is here. Very soft, high quality suede, nubuck, goat, pig and calf, leather with hair on it, leather embossed to look like crocodile, soft furry leather, shearlings, sheepskin; in every shade and finish you could imagine. I went in search of silver to create a silver edging on one of my SWAP outfits. Nana wanted a dark bluish, purple-black for a handbag, and Tope bought dark brown and tan leather for trousers and a tunic. Marianna was mainly there to learn, like me.
Here a few tips on what to buy for what jobs (according to Storm Leather)
- Basically any mammalian skin can be turned into leather (and obviously also reptiles like snakes and crocodiles, and fish like salmon). Small animals are not much use for obvious reasons, although baby lambs (including ones that die when they are new born) skins are both small and rather soft. Most leather is a by product of the meat producing industry and can be turned into clothes or accessories (mainly bags and shoes), giving durability and significant weather resistance. Generally, unlike fabric which is sold by the metre or yard (and occasionally by weight) leather is usually sold by the square footage (or meterage). Funnily enough the thickness of the leather is usually quoted in the UK in millimetres. Eg 0.4-5mm. 0.8mm, 1.5mm, etc.The main types of leather available are cow, calf, sheep, lamb, goat, kid and pig skin. Rabbit skin is normally sold as fur.
- Cow skins are generally both large and thick (tough) although skins are often “split”. This means the upper part (grain side) is separated horizontally from the flesh side. The grain side is the leathery side and the underside is a suede effect. The lower piece is suede on both sides and is considerably softer and more flexible. This would be sold as suede. In addition, with thicker skins a third layer can be split off and this is called the under-split. This is also a suede. Some skins are sold with the hair on. Sometimes these are used as mats or floor coverings in their natural state. Other times these are dyed and overprinted. You can get “antiqued” leathers that may work well for historic costume making or for interesting designs. Generally cow skins are used for shoes and handbags. Arizona pull up can be distinguished by stretching it a little and the colour will appear to fade. This springs back when released – normally this is sold in thicknesses of around 0.8mm and is good for more solid leather jackets.
- Calf skins are smaller and come from the veal market. Known as box calf these are from animals of less than six months old. They are rolled in two directions to create a ‘box’ shape. These leathers are The price of good quality whole calf skin would be around £200 (at £7-8 a square foot).Ideal for shoes and bags. Nubuck is another finish, ideal for footwear.
- Sheepskin is often sold with the hair (wool) still attached to provide a warm fabric ideal for heavier weight coats. The type of wool will affect the look of the leather – varying from tight curls, long twists or even some wool that looks like fur – from the Toscana sheep. The latter has been used as a substitute for fur by some designers. Lamb skin is similar to sheep, except it is thinner and lighter. Sheerling is generally lambskin, but it may be sheep. Most of the variation in the length of hair, its natural colour and softness is due to the breed of sheep it has come from. The best quality is Spanish Entrafino lamb, even at .4mm is very strong as well as soft, and will not tear. Many other breeds are cross breeds Marino is a good quality produce. Most of the sheep skins you see have been dyed – sometimes the colour is added and then the wool is cropped to reveal a softer more varied colour.
- Pig skins are easy to spot as they have follicles on the underside where the hairs were (pigs are a lot smoother than most of the leathers). They are nice and soft and ideal leathers for making skirts and other items as they are easily cut with shears and sewn on a domestic machine. They are smaller than cow and calf leathers, but usually take colour beautifully. Goat and kid are also smaller and finer leathers – generally coming in a good range of colours and with hair on.
- The main finishes are leather, patent leather (polished to a very high shine), suede, nubuck, coated and hair on. In addition I was shown stretch leather which is leather backed with cotton-elastane, and synthetic and vegan leathers which are very convincing. I bought a piece which I will tell you about soon.