What is Leather? - History of Clothing
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What is Leather?

leather shoe
Medieval shoe from the Cluny museum, Paris

October 2016 - People make leather from the skins of animals. You can make leather out of the skin of any animal, but cows have the thickest skins to make the strongest leather. After the shepherd or the butcher killed the animal, he skinned the animal. Then a tanner (someone who makes leather) made the skin into leather. In some cultures it was mostly men who made leather. In other cultures it was mostly women. There were a lot of different ways of making leather. First you scraped all the flesh off the leather with a bone or stone scraper (later on, people might use metal knives).

For most of the Stone Age, people just dried that skin and used it as it was - we call that rawhide. By about 5000 BC, though, people in Central Asia started to process the skin with chemicals to make it softer.

Sometimes people used salt. Some people used tannin, a chemical made from tree bark, or animal fat. Some people smoked the leather over fires made from green branches, or used powdered alum. A lot of people used urine (you know, pee!). Tanners (people who made leather) would go around and collect urine from public toilets and from peoples' houses and take it back to their store in jars. They would let the urine stand around in the jars for a week or so until it turned into ammonia, and then they would pour the ammonia on the leather to cure it (to make it into leather). This made tanners and tanners' shops smell terrible, and mostly they were outside of town, right on the edges of towns, where people wouldn't have to smell them so much.

Leather-making spread from Central Asia south to West Asia and North Africa, where the Sumerians and Egyptians used it about 3500 BC, and west to China, where Stone Age villagers also used leather. Soon people were using leather in Europe, India and southern Africa too.

People made many things in the ancient and medieval worlds out of leather. People made belts and shoes out of leather as we do today. They also made leather jackets and protective aprons and hats and sometimes pants out of leather. They used leather straps to carry boxes and bags. But people also used leather for lots of things that we don't use it for today. They didn't have plastic, and metal was very expensive, and glass and pottery were too breakable. People used leather bags to carry water and wine. They used leather strings to tie up their hair. Sometimes people used sheets of leather to cover doors or windows, or even as paper to write on.

Before people began to spin wool and flax into cloth, they made more of their clothes out of leather and furs. Once they began to have wool and linen cloth, they didn't need leather as much for clothes, but they still used leather for many many things.

Learn by doing: what do you use that is made of leather?
More about ancient clothing
More about medieval clothing

Bibliography and further reading about leather:

From Cow to Shoe, by Ali Mitgutsch (1981). For kids, translated from German.

Leatherwork, by Sylvia Grainger (1976). Lots of projects to do with leather.

Studies in Ancient Technology: Leather in Antiquity - Sugar and Its Substitutes in Antiquity - Glass, by R. J. Forbes (2nd revised edition 1997). Only part of the book is about leather, but it will tell you everything you need to know about leather in ancient Greece and Rome. By a specialist, for adults.

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Looking for leather goods?

This is a great leather bomber jacket, for looking as cool as you feel

Want to try working with leather?

These cowhides will let you experiment with cutting and sewing leather.

Or check out these assorted leather scraps - great for projects!

Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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