Have you ever sat on a Chesterfield sofa and admired the quality of its leatherwork? I’m sure at some stage or other most people have. Yet, have you ever wondered how that beautiful leather covering on the Chesterfield settee was manufactured? One day it was a cow’s coat that shielded it from the elements, the next, a beautiful hide carefully preserved and prepared, ready to be used for a covering for a bespoke piece of Chesterfield furniture. You might think you have a rough idea about how hides are transformed into leather for furniture manufacture, but I think you’ll be surprised at the complexity of the process and the amount of time it takes to produce top-quality leather.
The whole process of transforming a hide into a piece of leather for a Chesterfield sofa covering can take up to 10 days. The first stage of the process is curing, where the raw hides and skins are preserved to stop them deteriorating. This is an essential step: without it, there would never be a piece of leather produced. Curing can be done by a variety of methods, from salting to chilling, or freezing or the use of biocides. Each tannery has its own preferred method.
Once the hides are cured, the skins are soaked in water to remove the residue: this can take from a few hours to a few days, depending on which method of curing was used. Soaking helps to clean the hide of any residual deposits of salt or dirt, and also helps them to partially rehydrate some of the moisture removed by the curing process.
Next the hide is painted or limed. This depends purely on the type of hide used. Painting is used to remove any traces of wool on sheepskins, using a sulphide-based product. Other hides are limed to remove the epidermis and any remaining traces of hair. Liming results in an alkaline swelling of the pelt: this reaction is necessary as it helps break down some of the chemical cross-links of the collagen within the hide.
After liming, the pelt is passed through a machine that removes any fleshy tissue from the underside of the hide. Some tanneries split the hide at this stage for processing: others wait until the hide is tanned. Once the hide is fleshed, it is then de-limed. This is a crucial stage in the process, as it removes any remaining alkalis within the pelt. The process has to be done slowly and gradually to avoid rapid changes in PH levels. Too quick a change and the tissues of the hide could distort or disrupt.
The longer a hide is de-limed, the greater the benefit for the quality of the pelt. Long de-liming removes all traces of lime, along with any remaining debris or ‘scud’ and any other residual component broken down during the process. The hide is then bated using enzymes. This completes the cleaning process and the pelt will then be clean and flat and ready for pickling and tanning.
The final stages of the curing process involve pickling and degreasing the hide. Pickling is necessary to prepare the hide for the tanning procedure. Weak acid and salt solutions are used to bring the pelt to the acid state needed for tanning. Stronger pickling solutions are also used to preserve pelts so that they can be stored or transported in a stable form for many months. Finally the hide is degreased using either a solvent or water-based solution, so that the hide is free from grease and clean and ready for the tanning process to begin.
So the next time you sit on a leather Chesterfield sofa, remember it’s been on quite a journey. Quality hides don’t just appear; they are crafted by expert hands.