Basically, leather is skin that has been tanned. When an animal is alive its skin is tough and hard wearing, but also soft and flexible. The animal’s body works hard to maintain its skin, ensuring it always has the correct balance of moisture and nutrients, and fighting off any bacteria that would cause it to rot. When an animal dies its skin is no longer being maintained, so it rapidly starts to loose its natural characteristics: if kept wet it rots, if dried it becomes hard and brittle. Tanning prevents leather from rotting while maintaining its characteristic strength and flexibility. The leather under goes many changes, both chemical and physical, during the tanning process, these changes effect how the leather needs to be cared for. It is important to remember that leather is not the same as living skin. Leather and skin need different types of care. The type of care leather needs is dictated by what type of leather it is.
Leather can be categorised into three broad types: aniline, pigmented and nubuck. All leathers start as aniline leather. Aniline leather is the most natural of all the leather types, it is tanned and dyed but receives little further processing. The best quality hides are used to make aniline leather. Lesser quality hides, those with surface imperfections, need further processing. The surface imperfections do not affect the strength of the hide, but they do affect its appearance. Hides that only need slight modifications are buffed, sanded or brushed to create nubuck. Other hides are processed by adding a layer of colour and a protective topcoat, these hides become pigmented leather. About 90% of all leather is pigmented leather.
It is important to understand what type of leather you have because the different types of processing the leather receive affect how easy the leather is to maintain and what type of maintenance it needs. What's your leather type?