Leather making is a large industry. In addition to furniture, it is used for clothing, accessories, tools and sports equipment. Most leather comes from cattle, followed by sheep, goat and pig, but it can also come from horses, deer and even kangaroos. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization’s estimates, approximately 1.4 billion animal hides were used in global leather production in 2020. That’s equivalent to one animal for every 5 humans on the planet. It results in over 20 billion square feet of leather annually.
Where does all that leather come from? The simple answer is, any country in the world that raises animals for meat and/or dairy. Here, we examine the sources of upholstery leather.
Leather for making upholstered furniture requires large, defect-free cutting areas with a high yield. As a result, it must come from large animals rather than small ones. It is primarily made from cattle, which is defined as domesticated bovine farm animals that are held as property and raised for use. It includes cows, calves, steer, bulls and water buffalo.
Upholstery Leather as a By-Product
You can rest assured that cows are not killed just for their hides to make upholstery leather. Instead, leather is a by-product of the beef and dairy industries. Leather hides are sold as a commodity on the world market. The price of leather hides fluctuates according to market conditions, such as disease or drought.
Every country in the world produces cattle as a source of meat and dairy for domestic use. Countries such as Brazil and Argentina that are major meat exporters also export cattle hides, known as the “raw material” from which leather is made.
Sources of Raw Material
The United States is one of the largest sources of cattle hides for tanning in the world. Hides can also come almost anywhere, including Central and South America, Africa, Europe, Australia, the Middle East and Asia, all countries with a large farming industry that produces cattle for beef and dairy. However, not all raw material is the same quality. There is a wide range of factors which can determine whether the hides are usable as upholstery leather. The hides must be large and defect-free. While blemishes and scars can be “corrected,” a hole cannot, so any hide with a hole in the cutting area must get used for another purposes, such as accessories, which require smaller cuts. A good example is a hide from a Brahman cow: the skin over its dorsal “hump” is thinner than the rest of the hide which, so when the hide is tanned and finished, the result is a large hole, which encroaches on the cutting area, reducing its cutability by as much as 30%.
Different Qualities of Raw Material
The majority of hides that are used in the United States for furniture making are European or South American. The best raw material in the world comes northern Europe, France and Germany in particular, which raise large beef breeds such as Charolais and Emmenthaler. There are many reasons why this is so:
Hides are not branded
Cows are less susceptible to skin diseases and parasites
Wood and electric fencing is often used instead of barbed wire
Hides are large (55 – 60 s.f.)
Breeds used in Europe don’t have humps
On the other hand, hides from South America have the following characteristics:
Hides are branded
Parasitic manifestation is often apparent
Barbed wire causes healed scars
Average hide size is small (45 – 48 s.f.)
Hides often have hump holes
The Tanning Industry in Various Countries
There are tanneries that produce leather hides all over the world. China is the world’s largest producer of finished leather, followed by Brazil, Italy, Russia, and then India, Argentina, South Korea and the U.S. The majority of finished upholstery leather in the United States originates in Europe (Italy in particular) and South American.
But that does not mean that the raw material used to be turned into finished leather comes from that country. For example, a tannery in Italy can purchased raw hides from anywhere, including the United States, Brazil, Australia and other parts of Europe. Your sofa leather can be imported from an Italian tannery on hides made in German or Brazil.
The tannery pre-sorts the raw material prior to beginning production in order to determine what type of treatment it will receive as well as its ultimate use. The biggest, cleanest hides are the ones selected to make into upholstery. Hides with holes are redirected.
Defects and blemishes alone do not necessarily preclude a hide from being turned into leather upholstery. Leather makers utilize various techniques for removing and disguising defects, which are discussed in our articles on the grades of upholstery. As a result, regardless of the hides’ origins or the country of manufacturer, your leather sofa or chair should be soft, luxurious, comfortable and defect-free.