About Leather

The world of belts, buckles and leather is a diverse, fascinating and at times complex one. We hope that the information in the pages below will provide you with answers to the majority of the questions that you may have. You may find that we have gone a little over the top with the detail but we would prefer to let you choose how much or how little you wish to dig into it. If there is anything else you would like to know please do not hesitate to ask and we will do our best to get back to you or add further information onto this page to help others in the future.

The subject of leather is broad and incredibly wide ranging, especially when you consider that here at Elliot Rhodes we use over 250 different types of leather in our collection – that’s just types of leather NOT colours!

But we’ll try and give you a potted guide to what we feel are the most important aspects of the leather that is used to make your belt.

Country of origin

First and foremost you need to know that the leather we use comes exclusively from Italy and Spain – about 90% from the former. Why these two countries? Quite simply because both of these countries have a centuries old tradition of making and tanning leather. Italy has the most established leather industry in the world and most importantly remains the most forward thinking. The Spanish leather industry certainly compares in terms of quality but lags the Italian industry a little in terms of innovation.

For us the first thing we think about is quality and working with both of these countries ensures a supply of the highest quality leather. Quality manifests itself in different ways but starts with the raw hides themselves and then continues into the quality of both the tanning and finishing process. Raw cow hides come from a variety of countries but the hides we use come predominantly from France, Belgium, Russia, Brazil, Italy or Spain. Cooler countries tend to provide better quality of leather in general with the skins less naturally blemished by scratches, bites and abrasions.

Full grain leather

At this stage it is important to know that all of the leather we use is ‘full grain’ leather. Quite simply this means that we use the actual top layer of the leather, the part that retains all of the natural grain and characteristics of the original skin. Much leather that you see on the market although stamped ‘Leather’ will have come from the layers below and have had the surface rectified. This is obviously still leather but its core properties will differ significantly from genuine ‘Full Grain’ leather.

The other thing you should know is that the inner side of all of our belts, what we would call the lining, is also made from full grain leather. So your belt once made is made of extremely high quality leather all the way around.

Leather thickness

Leather or skins come in a variety of thicknesses much dependent on the size of the original cow. Very fine leather used for shoes or bags will come from younger smaller animals and the skin will be very fine as you would expect, however inherently more fragile. For belts we use leather starting at 1mm thickness which has to be lined to create sufficient sturdiness but also use leather as thick as 4mm which comes from the shoulders of a larger cow or bull. This type of leather does not need to be lined as it is already nice and chunky.

In each case the thickness of the leather used will define the style and feel of your final belt. A 4mm thick leather is inherently more casual and is the type of leather we use for a classic jeans belt. A 1mm thick leather will be perfect for a smart belt for trousers or a suit.

And then there's suede

There is one notable exception to the ‘Full Grain’ rule and that is suede. To achieve the characteristics inherent in suede we have to use a slightly more open surfaced leather where the grain is less tightly packed which then has to be brushed to create the pile effect we all love. If we brush the surface of a full grain leather we get Nubuck which although having a pile effect is much finer in feel.

Vegetable tanning and dyeing

Vegetable Tanning is the centuries old method used for tanning leather using 3 original ingredients: Mimosa (for yellows), Chestnut (for browns) & Quebracho (for reds). You will be familiar with the first 2 ingredients but the 3rd - Quebracho – comes from the tannin rich bark of the Quebracho tree that is found in Latin America.

The tanning process creates supple natural feeling leather with a colour that constantly evolves with time and useage giving that wonderful aged feeling and making each piece individual to the wearer.

The process requires drumming of the raw leather in large oak vats filled with the various vegetable dyes that have to be hand mixed for each batch from their initial powder form. This is not so much a science as a skill – a little like cooking and knowing just how much of each spice to add to get the desired effect. Extra finishes – oil finish, waxes etc...are also applied in the same traditional way once the skins are dry from their initial tanning – the skins go back into a drum where the oils and waxes are added.

Vegetable tanning uses little if any chemicals – only a little aniline (soluble) dye is added after the initial vegetable tanning process to create colours such as a blue or a green or for waterproofing. Vegetable tanned leather is fully biodegradable – plant your belt in the garden and it will over time biodegrade and become part of the soil. Although tanning in general requires the use of a lot of water the water used in the vegetable tanning process is very easily purified and returned to the water system.

Why can't we use vegetable tanned leathers?

Bright colours, whites, deep colours...unfortunately cannot be achieved with pure vegetable tanning. Equally some leathers we do not want to age and need them to stay more consistent (think about your black dress belt) – so these are Chrome tanned on a Semi Aniline base.

Chrome tanning and dyeing

The majority of leather produced nowadays is tanned using chrome process tanning. Chrome tanned leather tends to be softer and more pliable than vegetable tanned leather. The tanning process is similar to that used in Vegetable Tanning but additional processes of retanning, dyeing and fatliquoring are used to create more consistent feel and colour in the leather.

Chrome tanning actually works by soaking the leather in a bath of Chromium Salt/Sulfate. This creates a base ‘tanned’ skin that is now ready to be finished and coloured.

Because the chrome tanning process is acidic, the leather is first neutralized with sodium bicarbonate and sodium formate or acetate, after which it is retanned with synthetic tanning agents called syntans, resins and natural tannins, which impart the desired properties to the leather being made. The leather is then dyed to the required shade and finally "fatliquored“ - natural and synthetic oils are taken up by the leather to replace the natural greases removed in the preceding processes, so that the fibres will be lubricated when the leather is dried.

Embossed leathers

When you see a mock crocodile leather this will have been made using an embossing process. Embossing is a process that heat presses an artificial grain pattern into the leather. This leather still starts as a full grain leather although the grain of the leather will normally be hidden one the emboss has been applied. The tanning process will normally be chrome tanning with the pigment or colour sprayed onto the leather surface.

After dying and milling, a pigment coat is sprayed or rolled onto the hide surface. The coating is very light and is generally just enough to produce a uniform surface color. The added color pigment helps to control shade variations from hide to hide and provides a greater degree of protection from fading. Finally, a top coat of synthetic, transparent resin is applied as a protective coating in either a high gloss or matte finish.

Two tone leathers

This is simply a leather that once dyed will have an additional coating of dye applied to it – usually this would be applied by spray. This allows us to polish the surface of the leather to gradually reveal the colour of the leather below, achieving a two tone finish.