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Whenever you see shiny and thousand-dollar worth of leather bags and leather footwear, can you even tell that it came from skin of some animals? The glamour of these products almost makes it less likely. This is so because these products have undergone stringent and meticulous processes of leather production. Leather technology is about the principles and practices involved in processing leather.
Hides of animals are the raw materials in producing leather. These raw materials undergo various processes before they reach the state of being useable for actual manufacturing of a wide range of leather products, including bags, belts, shoes, purses, upholstery, gloves, saddles, accessories, etc. Cattle hide is recognized to be the most famous and widely used raw material in Leather Industry. Hides of lamb, sheep, pig, goat, kangaroo, crocodile, snake, alligator, and deer follow. The use of hide of ostrich is popular in the extravagant leather products of Gucci, Prada, and Louis Vuitton. The use of hides of string ray, on the other hand, is popular in leather production in Thailand.
Leather production workflow starts from skinning the animals in slaughter house. The next process is the trimming and sorting of hides (or the elimination of unusable and/or defective parts). Removal of hair and dirt is done mechanically by machines, although sudding or the removal of remaining hair and dirt (those that were not cleared by machines) is done manually. Tanning comes next. This process involves the use of various chemicals and can be done in a number of methods, depending on the intended final product. Tanning is done to prevent raw materials from rotting and degradation and to make it pliable and water-resistant. The tanning process may take a few days or a year to finish, depending on the methods used. Oiling and dyeing follow the tanning process. These processes are done to bring back the natural oil that got lost during the application of chemicals and to give leather a color that suits its intended purpose. Drying is the next process and is followed by finishing touches. Quality inspection is done every step of the workflow to look for possible quality problems (e.g., uneven dyeing) and correct it until the product gets accepted as quality leather.
In India, Leather Industry employs about 2.5 million people. Employees in this industry work either as part of operations in leather production companies (where large portion of work is done by machines.) or as specialist in the industry’s research and development aspect. Due to the nature of work in this industry, part-time work is almost not possible. Employees are employed full-time by leather manufacturing companies.
Producing leather comes with a price – it leaves toxic wastes. Environmentalists and advocates of animal welfare are criticizing the Leather Industry for being a hazard to environment, people, and animals where they get hides from. There are studies showing that the chemicals used in tanning leather cause health problems to tanners. These chemicals are released into river streams; thus, poisoning water consumed by both animals and humans. To mitigate this problem, there are rules and regulations about proper disposal of the toxic wastes it leaves, and leather technologists are in continuous search for new approaches (new process or new chemicals) that would minimize the harmful effect of by-product of leather processing. The need for continuous improvement in this industry makes it a practical choice of vocation. Despite these issues that the industry faces, there is continuously high demand for leather products primarily because leather is known for its elegance and durability.