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A glimpse into leather processing: history, quality standards and more

Humanity has been processing leather since time immemorial, and the processes have evolved and improved over the centuries to meet the needs of new users. According to some historians, plant-based materials were used as early as the end of the Neolithic period to protect the pelts of hunted animals from decomposition and turn them into a more durable and handy material for domestic use. The first leather products were clothing, footwear, and various containers for foods and liquids.

Tanning and dyeing processes

Vegetable tanning originated in antiquity in the Mediterranean region and developed in the East. It is still used today and is one of the oldest surviving methods of processing leather. In the Middle Ages, hides were tanned in pits, barrels, or sacks, depending on the size of the leather being processed. The skin of large animals was tanned in tanks on the ground, and the process took between 6 and 12 months. This leather was used to produce shoe soles, belts, and harnesses. The skins of small and medium-sized animals were tanned for several weeks in wooden or clay barrels mixed with plant materials. Sack tanning was widespread in southern Europe to produce thin, decorative leather for jewelry and other accessories.

Tanning and dyeing processes in the East

The industrial revolution and the need for faster processes have also pushed leather processors to improve. The skins were tanned in unique rotating drums filled with tanning agents and water. In addition to plant materials, trivalent chromium, also known as chromium salt, was introduced in the 19th century for leather processing. But unfortunately, associated with adverse environmental and human health effects. It was not until the early 20th century that synthetic tannins began to be used in tanning leather. Processing the animal’s skin with plant or artificial agents gives the skin stability and resistance to micro-organisms and moisture due to collagen synthesis, the main protein in the skin with tannins.

Leather processing

Leather tanning process

Present-day leather industry

This centuries-old light industry is no less critical today. Global exports from the leather industry are estimated at USD 5 billion annually. Cow, sheep, goat, and pig skins are the most popular for making footwear, clothing, furniture, and car upholstery. The footwear and haberdashery industries also use skins of exotic origin: crocodile, buffalo, camel, and snake. Modern tanning usually consists of 25 steps, which can vary depending on the method chosen, the materials used, and the time involved. The tanned leather can be of different thicknesses, colors, and textures.

According to the International Council of Tanners, the global leather industry produces between 7 and 8 billion square meters of leather each year, worth around USD 50 million. Just under 50% of this is used for footwear production. The leather industry is a highly dynamic international business, with constant imports and exports of raw materials, both partially and fully processed leather and leather products. The production of the European Union is unequivocally world-leading in terms of quality, technology, environment, and style. The EU leather processing industry comprises small and medium-sized companies, employing 21 people.

Italy is the absolute leader in the leather industry in Europe. There are more than 1,200 leather processing companies employing around 18,000 people. Italy accounts for 65% of the EU and 23% of the world's production of processed leather. In this southern European country, the leather processing industry is concentrated in three regions:

Veneto – is one of the world’s largest leather processing regions in terms of companies and employees. The region was known for its silkworm farming until World War I but later concentrated on leather processing. The Veneto region is home to small, medium, and large leather processing companies specializing in medium and large-sized cowhides. These products are then used to manufacture cars, furniture, footwear, and haberdashery.


Leather processing in Tuscany dates back to the mid-19th century, but the boom dates to the 1950s and 1960s, when agricultural volumes dropped. Leather processed in this region accounts for around 30% of all the leather processed in the country. Their high level of artistry characterizes Tuscan leather processors, and their products are primarily used for haute couture. Tuscan companies specialize in processing medium and small-sized cow and goat leather.


Campania – a region in southern Italy with a concentration of small-scale leather processors supplying sheep and goat leather to footwear, clothing, and haberdashery manufacturers. Although leather processing in the region dates back to the Bronze Age, it was not until after World War II that the industry took off.


Marche – the heart of footwear production. It is where the stories of almost all the brands of Dolita began. From small and young to centuries-old footwear brands. A region where traditions, crafts, and unique Italian design come together.


The Italian leather industry values old traditions and invests in the latest technology. Leathers are usually processed with vegetable tannins and tanned for about three months, giving them a distinctive Italian charm for later products.

Spain is the second largest leather processing country in Europe, with nearly 100 companies employing around 2,300 specialists. The country’s leather processing companies are concentrated in the Catalonia, Valencia, and Murcia regions. The majority of the leather processed – 65% – is cowhide, followed by sheepskin at 19% and other leather at 16%.

Environmental protection and sustainability

Consumers increasingly want to know the origin of a product and its raw materials, and its impact on the environment when making purchasing decisions. The leather industry understands this and is committed to certified standards. Today, leather processors are focusing on the environment: the total amount of chemicals and water used is constantly being reduced, so the amount of pollution is decreasing. Unique technologies reduce the number of salts in leather tanning, while biotechnology minimizes the use of chemicals and conserves energy. Production has also reduced the amount of non-biodegradable products and is increasingly moving away from polluting substances. The environmental impact is also reduced by using the previous waste as a source of new raw materials: cuttings, bristles, etc., are recycled into fertilizers, value-added products, or energy. Not only the raw materials are recycled, but also the products used during tanning. For example, the chromium leftover from tanning is used to produce new tanning materials, and the effluent is also treated and used in other stages of leather processing.

The excellent quality of the raw material is a significant contributor to the quality of leather products, be it footwear, clothing, furniture, or car upholstery. While the supply of furs and skins is essential for the leather processing industry, these raw materials are by-products of the food industry. As much as 50–60% of the costs of leather processing is accounted for by the cost of raw furs and skins. Unfortunately, the quality of raw leather is often challenging to assess accurately, so some errors in leather quality are still possible. Nevertheless, many leather processing processes and quality are standardized according to ISO (International Organisation for Standardisation) and CEN (European Committee for Standardization) norms.

High-quality leather lasts for many years, develops a unique wear pattern, and becomes inimitable with age. As consumers pay more and more attention to sustainability and conscious consumption, leather products are becoming more sought-after as they are durable and repairable. In addition, leather products require very little maintenance, which does not require water or electricity, as in the case of washing textiles. Leather products can be successfully recycled, and it is estimated that recycled leather decomposes within 10–50 years.

Lithuanian traces in the history of the leather industry

At the beginning of the 20th century, the largest leather processing factory in the Russian Empire and the Baltic states was located in Šiauliai. Its owner, Chaimas Frenkelis, a craftsman from Ukmergė, who had learned the craft of leather processing in Poland, established his workshop in Šiauliai in 1879. Frenkelis was constantly interested in global innovations in leather processing and strived for innovation, organizing the company’s technological production process and looking for the most efficient solutions on how and from where to source the required raw materials. In 1894, Frenkelis started the production of sole leather and expanded his factory, modernized the production, and mechanized the manual work that had been used in the company until then: he installed steam boilers, purchased steam-powered machinery (steam dryers, presses, etc.), which replaced part of the manual work, and the first “electric dynamo” in Šiauliai, i.e., the electric generator for his electrical station.

Ch. Frenkelis factory

After starting to produce shoe soles, Frenkelis improved the production technology. They were the first in the Russian Empire to import quebracho wood from South America instead of spruce bark for tanning soles. As a result, almost all the leather for the various soles came to Šiauliai from Russia, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and India. In addition, the Šiauliai factory was the first to use “mangrove”, a red bark shipped from East Africa. The tanning with this material produced high-quality “red soles”, which hardened when wet and became impervious to moisture. The “red soles” had a high market demand and made the leather factory of Frenkelis famous. In 1905, at the Paris and Brussels World Expositions, the leathers from the Frenkelis factory were voted the best and were awarded a gold medal.

About 80% of the factory’s total production was soled. Different types of sole leather were produced for different types of shoes: one type of soles were used for farmers’ shoes, another for military shoes, and special soles for fisherman, which were particularly resistant to moisture. Women’s footwear needed light soles. Different soles were produced for shoemakers who sewed by hand and factories whose production was mechanized. In 1914, the factory employed around 1,000 people (information from the Šiauliai “Aušros” Museum).

"Made in Lithuania" footwear

Glossar of leather

Aniline leather is leather with a slight surface finish and a visible natural, grainy texture. This leather is usually made from the highest quality raw materials and used to produce luxury goods. The surface of aniline leather is more susceptible to environmental effects than semi-aniline or pigmented leather.

Chrome-free leather is leather tanned without chromium. Aldehydes are most commonly used.

Chrome leather is leather tanned with chromium. This results in a stable and durable end product suitable for furniture and footwear production.

Suede is made from leather scraps and leather dust glued together in layers. Layers of bonded leather are used to produce soles and haberdashery, e.g., to give handbags a rigid shape.

Bonded leather is made from leather scraps and leather dust glued together in layers. Layers of bonded leather are used to produce soles and haberdashery, e.g., to give handbags a rigid shape.

Patent leather - a coated type of leather that has a shiny surface. The process of making patent leather itself was invented in 1799. Inventors received a patent for painting and coloring all kinds of leather. In 1805 patented an even more unique technology that requires buttocks and whale oil, horse balm, and soot. Current leather coating technologies can change not only colors but also the thickness of patent leather, work on the surface, or give it a different shine.

Polished leather is leather whose top layer has been smoothed and buffed to a velvety smooth finish. The strength of the polishing determines whether the hairs are visible. Sometimes this term is applied to nubuck.

Embossed leather is leather whose surface pattern is created by pressure.

Woven leather – woven leather - leather that is made from leather straps. Centuries-old traditions of leather sewing are often applied during production. For example, these sandals are made of braided leather, and this method is called "macramé".

So, it would be hard to disagree that properly and professionally processed leather is one of the most durable and versatile materials, with a huge range of applications in everyday life. While focusing on the latest technologies and reducing their environmental impact, Leather processors in Europe also set the bar high for design and comfort, which is always appreciated by the quality and environmentally conscious consumers.

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