Leather – it’s our material of luxury and stamina. We weave it into our clothing, line the soles of our shoes with it, and use it to upholster furniture. We thrift it, inherit it, and order it tailor-made. It’s an age-old material that exudes both character and quality.
But let's reground ourselves; leather is an industry, like any other textile, and it's a booming one. In 2020, the global leather goods market size was valued at more than $394 billion (USD) and it's expected to reach for $626 billion by 2028.
Though leather's aesthetic rings of farm hands and workshop-made objects, the bulk of our leather is made far from any cattle station. China is the industry's leader by miles; it produces more than twice as much each year as its closest competitor.
Perhaps, then, the manufacturing process is still a mystery to us. Where is it actually made? What's the process? How does it arrive in our hands? Let's explore the leather industry in China, piece by tanned piece.
What is leather?
Back to basics: what constitutes the rustic material we know as leather?
Most of us are familiar with the leather from cows, but leather actually refers to the hide of any animal. (Dare I mention it? There's even a history of human leather!)
To make said animal hide into the smooth and luxurious material we're accustomed to, there's a lengthy process of cleaning, prepping, tanning, and finishing off, which I'll go through in a minute. In other words, leather manufacturing isn't a slice of pie – which is why handmade leather comes at such a premium.
Our history of using leather stretches right back to 5000 B.C. in the form of Egyptian wall paintings and artifacts. Greeks made leather more trendy around the 4th century B.C., and in the present, we see it used all over the world in different forms and industries.
So, what sparked its rise to such popularity? What do we love about it? What's the utility? Most forms of leather have these great attributes in common:
If you've ever received a scuffed hand-me-down leather boot, you'll know that the material is built to last. It shows its age aesthetically (as we all do), but there's no denying that leather is an incredibly sturdy fabric.
Take the American bison. It’s tough, alright! The animal has to be – its hide is the source material for some of the most robust leather in the world. This natural thickness and density also makes it resistant to water and other environmental factors.
Craftsmen of leather admire the material for its malleability. Imagine a piece of stiff cardboard; it can be bent, but it's not going to take the shape you want it to. Now think of a piece of Play-Doh – it'll go where you put it, but won't keep its integrity for long.
Leather sits at a happy medium in which it can be molded and shaped, but it won't lose its form. It's not doughy, but it's not board-like – it's just right.
Some leather fanatics will say that it's a high-maintenance material. It needs tender love and care! The magic of leather, though, is that you can give it as much or as little TLC as you want.
Leather brushes, conditioners, oils, and waxes are readily available on the market should you choose to use them, and they'll help keep your leather looking new. Alternatively, if you're not bothered about a little wear and tear (which only adds character), then you can just leave it be.
Of course, you can take the overly-angsty approach and bash your leather boots around on purpose. Some people like the rough aesthetic. I don't judge!
The winning combo of durability, flexibility, and ease of maintenance makes leather the go-to material for a variety of products. It's no wonder that even as some material markets come and go, leather is here to stay.
How do you make leather?
Prepare your stomach for a bit of a queasy ride, because the process of leather work isn't a pretty one (hence why we leave it to the manufacturers...)
I’ll spare the gory details, don't worry. Since leather is an animal hide – meaning the literal skin of an animal – there's a lengthy process required to make sure that everything's completely sanitary and ready to wear or use. Thank goodness for that.
As you can imagine, animal hide begins with a lot of extras. There's hair to remove, dirt to clean, and a lot of fat to trim. Here's a quick rundown.
Degreasing: Into a vat of chemicals goes the fatty hide, where the oil is loosened and can be drawn off.
Liming: Next, a mix of calcium hydroxide and water breaks down the stubborn collagen in the hide, making it easier to split into layers.
Pickling: Like a gherkin in a jar, the hide is soaked to get nice and soft. (Instead of salty vinegar, though, this soak uses a mild acid).
Unhairing: As you might have guessed, this step removes all of the hair from the hide. It breaks down the hair follicles on the skin by either submerging the hide in a vat of enzyme solution or by spraying the enzymes onto the skin.
Fleshing: To make sure that the leather is as soft as possible, the hide is then run through a machine that removes any leftover flesh or fat.
Splitting: Did you know that one piece of leather might have a few different purposes? The top layer, or the grain, is that shiny, smooth material you might be used to. It's perfect for making shoes or handbags. The split is the layer below that, and it's a little rougher around the edges. This is great for belts and other accessories. Anything left behind is reserved for the cheaper stuff.
Now, the section our Wild West fanatics are waiting for: tanning.
This step is the one we see depicted most often in movies; the lowly cowboys are out in the sun, tending to their animal hides. In reality, though, tanning has come a long way from those days of using natural elements.
The end goal of tanning is to fully stabilize the hide, making it resistant to bacteria and other organisms. It's an organ, after all, and no organ is immune to decomposing!
There are a few different ways to do this.
Vegetable tanning: The hide is soaked in a vat of tannic acid, which comes from various plants (such as oak bark). This is a slow process, but it produces the most durable leather.
Chrome tanning: A much faster process, this one uses chromium sulfate to stabilize the hide. It's not as environmentally friendly as vegetable tanning, but it is cheaper and more consistent.
Aldehyde tanning: This method uses aldehydes (such as formaldehyde) to stabilize the hide. It's the cheapest and fastest way to tan, but it can be harmful to the environment and to workers.
Now that the hide is tanned, it's ready for the next step: crusting.
The crusting process is almost a backup step to soften and stabilize the leather even further. It's like backing your data up onto an extra hard drive, just in case.
In this stage, the leather might even be split into more layers. Those layers can require extra tanning depending on the final use of the leather, so it's a dance between tanning and crusting until the leather is perfect. Crusting also involves a healthy dose of buffing to reduce any scars or blemishes on the hide.
After crusting, it's finally ready to be dyed and finished.
Dyeing and Finishing
This is where the leather gets its color – because believe it or not, leather actually starts out a natural light brown or skin color. The deep, rich colors we see in finished leather products come from dyeing.
There are a few different methods for dyeing leather, but most involve either a water or solvent-based solution. And yes, even your 'natural' leather armchair has been treated with a solvent-based dye. (Sorry to break it to you – but it's definitely for the best, because dyeing is what makes leather resistant to fading and staining.)
Immersion dyeing is the most common method, because it's the most efficient. It coats the leather in dye and then dries it quickly with heat. The manufacturer will then finish the job with glosses, water repellents, and other treatments, to give the leather that perfect look and feel.
And there you have it! The complete process of making leather, from start to finish. It's a long, but necessary journey to create a beautiful, durable material.
Leather manufacturing in China
I think it's time to bring our star of the show in to center stage. I'm referring, of course, to China's leather manufacturing industry – a thriving market that isn't shy about showing skin.
China truly has the lion's share when it comes to global leather production. They've cornered 30.3 percent of global output, and at their current production rate, they're shelling out 6,170 million square feet of leather a year. FYI, that's the collective surface area of 123400000 cows.
Why is China in such demand? Well, there are actually quite a few benefits to be gained from sourcing your leather and pleather in the PRC.
A well-developed and vast infrastructure. There's no denying that China is well-equipped to take on any leather manufacturing task. From tanneries to fabric mills, they have the resources and manpower to get the job done.
Skilled labor at competitive rates. Leather manufacturing is a skilled trade, and Chinese laborers are more than capable of meeting the needs of global brands. And they won't break the bank – labor costs in China are much lower than in other parts of the world.
Government incentives and subsidies. For a leather company investing in Chinese leather manufacturing, the government is happy to offer incentives and subsidies. This includes things like tax breaks, low-interest loans, and land grants.
Excellent quality control. It's important that quality control is up to snuff with all those products coming off the assembly line, and in China, it most certainly is. In fact, many buyers report that Chinese-made leather goods are of a higher quality than those made in other parts of the world.
Despite these easy sells, many companies outside of China have a number of obstacles to jump before they can take advantage. For every success story – and there are undoubtedly success stories – you’ll find a disconcerting horror story.
Without spending time in the country and speaking directly to leather factory owners or suppliers, a lot of your hard earned and painstakingly raised funds can be lost along the way.
A common theme in China's manufacturing industry is the involvement of the middle man. Many factories (especially in the early stages of development) lack the resources to deal with buyers directly, so they work with an agent or trading company.
This isn't inherently a bad thing, but it does introduce a certain level of uncertainty and risk – and of course, plenty of unscrupulous agents are more than happy to take advantage of that fact.
To mitigate this risk, many buyers require a certain level of trust before doing business in China:
Trust that the leather goods supplier can actually produce the quantity and quality of goods ordered,
Trust that the supplier won't suddenly go out of business (or worse, run off with the money), and
Trust that the supplier is actually telling the truth about their pricing and capabilities.
This trust usually comes through a process of verification, in which the buyer sends a representative to China to inspect the factory, meet with management, and verify that everything is up to snuff.
Only by being there can you truly get an understanding of what's going on – which is why we (MorphoMFG) have a physical presence in China and are directly part of the supply chain.
When it comes to media representation, China's manufacturing practices often get a bad rap. In all honesty, there are some terribly inhumane and unsustainable factories out there. But you'll be pleasantly surprised to hear that China is leading the way in sustainable leather manufacturing.
It's true! China's now got several initiatives in place to make the process more environmentally responsible. From using recycled materials to reducing water usage and implementing energy-saving measures, Chinese leather manufacturers are setting the global standard for sustainable production.
Once again, though, this is a double-edged sword for many business owners. Without visiting the factories yourself and making sure they prove their environmental credentials, your brand could be in for some serious backlash should you make the wrong decision.
With China's mega range of manufacturing options, you're bound to find a supplier that can offer you a competitive price. Or are you?
Without prior knowledge of each option, it can be difficult to accurately compare prices between leather made in Chinese factories. And even if you do have a good idea of the going rate, suppliers often inflate their prices when dealing with foreigners (known as "mark up").
Many businesses end up going with someone that seems reliable from thousands of miles away, without knowing whether a better option was waiting for their visit. What a waste!
This is where a good agent or trading company can come in handy – and of course, we at MorphoMFG are primed and ready to get rid of the guesswork. With a team on the ground in China, we can quickly compare prices and get you a score of a deal.
The old adage, "you get what you pay for" is true in every industry, and perhaps even more so in the instance of leather. The super cheap option you thought was a miracle deal might actually turn out to be low quality, synthetic leather that costs double or triple its worth in the long run.
Ultimately, the issue here is that every leather goods manufacturer is different. It's often difficult to get an accurate understanding of the quality of their products without seeing them in person. And even then, how do you know the factory isn't telling you what you want to hear?
A low-quality leather can get you into all kinds of strife, from an inferior product (cracking, defects, peeling, and toxins) to a devastating lawsuit. That's why it's so important to have a trustworthy supplier – one that you can visit and see for yourself – or someone doing the groundwork on your behalf.
The MorphoMFG Way
With these challenges in mind, we're left with a tough question. How can we take risk out of the equation? How can we – the makers, the shapers, the creators – guarantee that our suppliers of leather in China are actually selling what they advertise?
I firmly believe the answer is in the MorphoMFG Component Control Method.
When our founder Josh Fairbairn first arrived in China, he was optimistic and ready to take on the world. But, as he soon learned, there are a lot of risks when doing business in China.
The TL;DR is that Josh ended up losing $10,000 of his own money trying to set up manufacturing for his product. It had been a wild success on Kickstarter, and with the right supplier, he might have made it big.
Motivated by a drive to learn from his mistakes, Josh went on to visit three factories a day. Every day. For two whole years.
His factory-dwelling days consisted of building relationships, weeding out the weaker links, and setting up a spiderweb of specialists that are focused on specific components. Josh essentially copied the model that giant companies like Apple use to ensure the most reliable end product.
Whether you just have an idea, or you’re ready to move directly into production, all of us on Josh's team are more than equipped to help you get there. We grew from a place of passion and drive, and we remain a product of Josh's determination.
By starting a conversation with MorphoMFG – regardless of where you are in the production line – you will be leveraging years of relationships built on the ground in China. We'll set up each component of your product to be produced separately in a different factory dedicated to that one piece.
After secure assembly in a facility with 100 percent control, meaning your IP is protected, the quality is guaranteed, and any problems can be dealt with efficiently, you can walk away with a China-made product that exceeds your expectations. And that's what we truly love to see.