A Brief History of Leathercrafting

It’s definitely safe to say that we’re no stranger to leathered goods. In fact, leather is one of the most used commodities in the market! The popularity of leathercrafting, however, can be traced back to pre-historic days. From shelters to armoury, and even bookbinders, leathercrafting has seen its fair share of uses and evolution. Yet, this artisanal craft remains just as popular as it was back in the day.  

Prehistoric days (Before 50,000 BC)

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Rumour has it that leathercrafting existed around 400,000 years ago, where animal hides were mainly used for practical purposes such as shelter from harsh elements. Surprisingly (or not), the primitive instincts of our predecessors actually led to the discovery of leather.

Signs of the first leathercrafting tool — Bone awls, dates back to 84,000 and 72,000 years ago in South Africa. Archaeologists believed Bone awls were predominantly used as leather punches in sewing hides, thereby suggesting leathercrafting’s early emergence in the prehistoric days.  

Image source: Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution

Just as how we’ve uncovered the hack of turning a whisk into a head massager, our ancestors tapped into their resourcefulness and made clothing out of animal hides. Guess we’re not that different after all! 

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Stone Age (50,000 – 3000 BC)

So, what and when was the first leather article discovered? In 2008, the world’s oldest known leather shoe was uncovered. You’ll be astonished to know that the 3,500-year-old shoe was found under a thick layer of sheep dung!

Image source: BBC

Doesn’t it have a striking resemblance to our modern-day shoes? Did our ancestors just predict the future?

Ancient India (3000 BC – 600 BC)

Enriched with a rich history, leather was likewise assimilated into the Indian culture. Everyday items ranging from bands, straps to water bottles and water-carrying bags, were crafted from leather. Of course, this serves as a testament to its popularity and versatility!

Ancient Egypt (2700 BC – 350 BC)

Extending beyond its highly utilitarian purposes, leather was regarded as a luxury that only the rich could afford. Leather jewellery and sandals were often worn by those from a higher social class. In stark contrast to its counterparts in Ancient India, leather was conferred a superior status due to its decorative use in both garments and chariots, and elaborate crafting techniques.

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Since chariot harnesses were mostly made from leather, comprehensive knowledge on leather tanning and adequate sewing skills were required from leather crafters. This is mainly because chariot harnesses should be able to withstand any sort of wear and tear. 

Ancient China (1600 BC – 200 BC)

Widely known for their armour, leather was the Chinese’s winning choice (literally). Largely used during the Shang, Zhou and Qin dynasty, the cowhide was a favoured choice for leather. However, historians recorded that buffalo and rhino skin were alternative sources of leather as well. According to Ancient History Encyclopaedia, leather was frequently tanned and lacquered to form tunics, supported by leather thongs, hemp cord or rivets. If extra protection was needed, the Chinese would layer on other studier materials such as bronze, iron and shells into their armour.

Middle Ages (4 – 1500)

During the Middle Ages, leather followed a more creative route. Its uses expanded beyond armoury and clothing and instead, it was an ideal material for dining chairs as it possessed anti-odour properties. Yuck, it must be hard to live without Febreze or any other odour-eliminating products back then! 

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Industrial Revolution (1750s – 1900)

In this period of heavy manufacturing and industrialisation, the leathercraft industry drastically changed as automation allowed for quicker production of finished leather goods. Leather was also utilised in machine belts, to reduce tensions and ensure a smoother drive of machinery. Following this trend, there was an increase in the demand for more fashionable and lightweight footwear which gave way to the introduction of chrome tanning.

Modern Day (1900 – Present)

Fast forward to today, leather crafting is extensively used across various industries, with numerous tanning methods such as Vegetable, Chrome, Aldehyde, Brain and Alum tanning. The uses of leather have also evolved to automotive, aviation and marine applications. Not to say the least, leather is indeed a timeless and versatile material. Who knows, maybe in 50 years’ time leather could be used as wrapping paper? Guess we’ll find out!

Interested to dabble in leather crafting? Learn more about leather crafting and its age-old techniques here.

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