Not all leather is equal. It may be easy to find, but getting the best quality can be tougher, which is why sticking to established regions of leather craftsmanship can be a safe route to quality products.
It’s a material that has been used for centuries, coveted for its durability and adaptability, whether it be for protection, footwear or saddles. There were historic leather centres but these days, leather is produced all over the world, using local methods and traditions. ‘Leather Locations’ is a three-part series, taking a closer look at the leather industries in notable countries across Europe, the Americas and Asia.
In Part III, the final article in the series, we look at Asia…
Given the ancient civilizations of China, it is no surprise that leather is known to be used from way back. The Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE) used leather to make armour covering the front and back of warriors with overlapping leather squares, which must have been effective as it was a practice used for centuries after this. A similar style can be seen on the famous Terracotta Army in Xi’an. Leather was most often made from buffalo hide, but there are records of rhino hides too. Leather was also included in the making of other armoury, such as helmets and shields, until bronze became common use.
Today, China is the leading leather exporter in the world with roughly a quarter of all leather exports originating there. But in terms of total leather production, China covers a massive 80% of the global share, given its vast domestic market. Due to its sheer size, farming capabilities and a growing economy, China is set to expand this industry and extend its leading position in the coming years.
Given the rise in Chinese pride relating to local brands, especially in luxury, coupled with the difficulty of accessing Chinese brands from abroad, it’s tough to share suggestions of Chinese leather brands to look out for here. However, HONGU is Chinese luxury bag brand that is giving Western competitors a run for their money.
As in China, India’s ancient civilizations were using leather centuries ago. The first recorded mention can be found in The Vedas, the Hindu holy scriptures. In 3000 BCE it seems leather ‘mashaks’ – water sacks – and bottles were used. Words written in Sanskrit including ‘charmanta’, and ‘varatra’ indicate use of straps, bands and strings made of leather. From the second century BCE onwards, leather was a great trade component on the Silk Route and others, and joined India with the parallel Greek and Roman empires.
Skipping ahead, explorer Marco Polo talks of leather manufacturing in the 1800s, as he wrote, “The curing of hides and the manufacture of leather were two of the most important of Gujarat 42 industries. Every year a number of ships went to Arabia laden with the skins of goats, oxen, buffalos and other animals. The leather was used for sandals and was cleverly worked into red and blue sleeping mats exquisitely inlaid with figures, birds, and beasts and skilfully embroidered with gold and silver wire”. As with many regions, the 1900s brought industrial advancements and leather became a larger production process within India, which was accelerated further by WWII.
Today, India accounts for 13% of the world’s leather production, with the industry as a whole employing over 4m people. India contributes 9% of global footwear production, which is valued at $2.6bn. The footwear industry especially is growing rapidly, and has the potential to grow eight fold by 2030 to reach a value of $80bn. It is no understatement to say that India contributes a great deal to the global leather economy, and we owe a lot to its rich craftsmanship history.
If you’re in the market for an Indian-based leather brand, take a look at father & son founded Viari, based in Chennai. They use eco-friendly rain water as an input of their production process, and focus on functionality embedded into simple, contemporary designs. Another business keeping it in the family are The Sole Sisters, who create hand-crafted shoes (mainly Kolhapuri style sandals) to order – and ship internationally!
Although not one of the top leather manufacturers in the world by volume, Japan has a specific relationship with leather that is worth exploring. However, it is not a well documented history, most likely because it was traditionally a trade for lower class workers and not deemed worthy of recording.
Japan’s forests are strong sources for tannin, and as a series of islands, there is a plentiful water supply for production. However, it never had a large enough cattle industry to build a leather market upon, and forests were not chopped down for said tannins as they were elsewhere because landslides were a real danger that forests prevented.
With fish as opposed to meat being the main source of protein for locals, footwear was made of straw or wood instead of leather. It seems that any leather was made from deer, from which the brains were used for tanning instead of trees (due to the landslide threat). This meant the leather making was self-contained, with the result being a light and resistant material.
Travelling forward on our historic timeline, Himeji leather was developed. This produced very special white leather, due to the bacteria in the Ichikawa River where the skins are soaked. Once wet, they were rubbed with salt and dried in the sun. From here, a chemical reaction occurred which naturally bleached the hides, making any dying unnecessary. You can imagine the demand for such beautiful leather.
Today, this region is responsible for 70% of Japan’s leather, although manufacturing processes have progressed, and this special white leather is not produced in the same way. Leather manufacturers going back generations such as Daisho established in 1925, are still based in this region, carrying forward the historic skills and techniques, even if time has modernised them somewhat.
If you’ve enjoyed Part III of Leather Locations, take a look back at Parts I & II which focused on Europe and the Americas!