Leather is recorded in the earliest activities of man, and shoes and bags have been discovered that are over five thousand years old.
The basic necessity to protect feet, and to carry food or weapons brought about the invention of moccasins and hunting bags.
Evidence of these has been found at archeological sites in North and South America, and throughout the Middle-East.
In the first instance, cattle are thought to have been domesticated in Southern Turkey around 10,000 years ago.
These were valued for their milk, and also provided meat and ultimately their skins.
Besides cattle, sheep, pigs and goats were also domesticated and produced leather.
Other sources include camel, bison, deer, oxen and yak.
More exotically the skins of many fish can be processed, as well as snake, crocodile, alligator, ostrich and kangaroos: many of these are highly valued in the modern fashion industry for clothing, accessories and shoes.
In the present day, those first small herds in Anatolia have spread to all parts and now total some 1.4 billion head!
Concentrating on cattle as the main commercial source, the bovine population numbers of the top twelve countries is set out below.
These figures are drawn from the 2012 estimates by the Food and Agriculture Organization, and our thanks for these.
BOVINE POPULATION [ millions ] BY COUNTRY 2012.
Notably Australia, Argentina and Brazil share the distinction of having more cattle than people!
Most animals are raised primarily for food, meat and dairy products, although a small proportion are for draft use on the land or for transporting goods.
Once the animal has been slaughtered the hides represent about 5% of the value of the carcase.
The final usage of the leather will be mainly for footwear, around 65%, followed by furniture and upholstery [15%] clothing [15%] and last of all leathergoods [5%].
Hides are tanned initially to a “wet salt” stage, which means the skin has been scraped free of hair and processed in liquid to soften and preserve it.
At this point hides can be transported to other tanneries for the final processing and finishing, often being exported.
The production figures show a big variation from the population statistics above, again drawn from FAO sources.
WET SALTED LEATHER PRODUCTION [ thousand tonnes ] 2012 estimates.
Russian Fed 164
The USA dominates production, followed closely by Brazil, China and India.
China overshadows the market, importing 1037 million tonnes of wet salted leather to add to its own production.
The other country that imports a notable amount is Italy, at 490 million tonnes.
These two countries are of course major production centres for finished leather articles.
China made 1966 million pairs of shoes in 2011, followed by Mexico with 288 m, Italy 232 m, and Brazil and India on 188 million pairs each.
What the statistics above reveal is that leather often moves round the world, in the process of tanning, and manufacture and delivery to the consumer.
That leather briefcase made in China may have been manufactured from hides tanned in Brazil, from a cowhide that was imported from Colombia – and then finally sold in a store in America.
Whenever the question is asked “where did the leather come from?” the only safe answer is from an animal hide!