Easy… From cows. The end….
Actually this is one of my most frequently asked questions…but the answer isn’t always simple because it depends greatly on who’s asking and why. Sometimes the question is from someone wants to get into leathercraft so they know where to buy. Sometimes they want to buy as “American” as they can, and want to know if the leather is from this country. On other occasions they want to know what tannery because they’ve heard good things about specific ones: Horween, Wickett & Craig, etc…In all of these cases the answer isn’t super-simple.
Where I buy my leather
I deal with about 8-10 different leather suppliers (it’s actually a pretty small world), but I only buy “stock” leathers occasionally from a few of them. When I buy stock leathers it’s usually 500-3000 square feet at a time, which is why I’m not terribly well equipped to give a recommendation to a beginning leatherworker or hobbyist who want’s to buy a specific leather. There are a few companies but leather isn’t like paint where you can just pick a color, order and get it in a few days. Most tanneries don’t keep a ton of leather “on the shelf” and ready to go.
If you need a very specific color or leathers it may be hard or even impossible to find unless you’re willing to take large amounts of both time and money to have made up. Even with popular leathers like Chromexcel, the waiting time can be months between placing an order and getting the leather.
Another thing to realize is that leather will vary greatly from batch to batch: I’ve ordered the “same” leather from the same tannery but each time the color and level of gloss has been slightly different; not a big deal but enough that I couldn’t mix it with the previous batch in the same item without it looking strange.
Because of these factors sometimes it’s hard to explain to customer with project that if they want a large number of an item in a specific color, it may be much more expensive than the “stock” price for the same item. There are circumstances in which an order for 100 pieces of an items would cost less per item than an order for 10,000…
Steals and Deals: How I keep my prices down:
So one thing that gets me a little bit of hate (or at least raises questions) from my fellow leather workers has to do with my prices, in fact, because many of my wallets are under $30 retail… I get asked how the time how I can do it. While, I have some techniques and tricks that have helped me reduce labor and streamline, the biggest factor in keeping my costs down (especially for wholesale) has to do with picking up deals on leather.
One supplier I deal closely with gets me overruns of leathers from SB Foot (Red Wing’s in-house tannery). These are awesome “American Tanned” leathers that I use whenever possible. I’m able to get specific leathers that come up from time to time so I’m able to get some consistency, however it I were to get a giant (thousands of pieces) order I may or may not be able to enough of any of these leathers quickly. Also, since they are what you’d call “boot leathers”, I don’t really see bright colors like pink, purple, blue or red. It’s also not suitable for “soft” items like pouches and purses.
I’d venture to say that most of the leather in my warehouse has come from odd lots and deals that my suppliers offer me from time to time. I do lots of “assorted” embossed pouches as “packaging” for jewelers and other companies. For this type of leather I have a guy who shows up every few weeks with garbage bags full of assorted upholstery scrap (usually a couple hundred pounds) from the North Carolina furniture industry. When it’s a “normal” color like black, brown, burgundy, navy or tan, I can put it into stock products, but because the vast majority of it is distressed or in random colors, it goes into assorted mixes of drawstring pouches and other small items. Here are some pictures of this “scrap ritual”:
Pig in a Poke Deals:
Other suppliers will call me up (or email) with scrap or odd hides from major shoe/boot companies, belt makers, or other leather companies. Sometimes there are pictures and descriptions (swatches or even samples if I’m very fortunate) for these deals, but more often than not, it’s a cheap price for what usually amounts to somewhat of a surprise. It can be a 10,000 pounds of scrap from a guitar strap factory in Canada, 10,000 feet of assorted hides from a small goods leather factory in the USA, or 12,000 pounds of large scrap pieces from a high end dress shoe company in New England or even full sides sample hides sold by the pound from the supplier themselves. When I know the company that was using it, I’m better able to know if I’m getting “the good stuff”. When these deals go well, it becomes and ongoing thing to take on scrap whenever it’s available.
Lower prices, still high quality:
I always use high quality leather (and suede) you won’t find any finished splits or other “junk” leather in my products but, my “brown” or “black” this month may not be the exact same leather today as it will be 6 months from now (I try to keep as much consistency as I can). So, for my “standard” products and the ones that go out to my wholesale customers it’s hard to say if the leather was tanned in the USA or not. It’s also hard to know the specific tannery a leather comes from because not all of them stamp their leather on the back with their name and logo. Other tanneries aren’t really interested in becoming “famous”; for example, upholstery leather is tough leather, meant to be sat on and abused for years, but I don’t know many people (even leatherworkers) who could name even one upholstery leather tannery. The companies that make the furniture are concerned with their brand, but the tanneries don’t really need to market to the public at large, so they don’t.
Sometimes it’s crazy-high-quality leather:
Lots of my brown and tan wallets are from some amazing scrap calf leather that I bought from a super-high-end shoe company, but because it was scrap, I have no idea of the tannery (probably European based on the look and feel). I’ve even used scrap leather from H.A.A.S. tannery (controlled by Hermes) in my “standard” trifold wallets that sell for around $25, even though if I had to buy this leather directly, the leather alone would cost more than what I sell the wallets for.
By popular demand: Specific leathers
I have, in the last few years, started to offer some more specific leathers (SB Foot and Horween) in certain products on my retail site so people are more aware of what they’re getting. But truth be told, I guarantee all my products the same, no matter where I get the leather. Even my “cheaper” products ones are still “buy it for life quality.”
A few words about “American Leather”
I mentioned in the outset of this post that one of the motive for the question “where do you get your leather?” is the idea of getting an items that’s as much “Made in USA” as possible. I’ve been making products here my entire life and strongly believe that there are lots of great reasons to buy things made here whenever possible. That being said, leather is a global commodity (like most “raw materials”), so it really depends on where you want to start in the leather making process if you want to call a leather “American” or not. SB Foot gets it’s hides in the stage called “Wet Blue” which is a form of pre-tanning, this means that the leather can come from any number of places in the world and is then finished in their tannery in Red Wing MN. Horween does lots of work with horse leather, like shell cordovan; because here in the USA we don’t have much taste for horse meat, these hides usually come from Canada and Europe. Are these leathers from SB Foot and Horween American? Most people would say so. It’s also hard to argue with using scrap that I’m buying from an American company, even though the leather is originally from Europe. The scrap was generated here, and while it’s technically not “Made in USA”, if your motives for “buying American” are to keep money in the United States economy, then the end result no different from buying full hides from an American tannery.
So that’s it, where I get my leather and how. Hope you’ve enjoyed this peak inside my shop.