There are different tanning methods for leather. Vegetable tanned leather is tanned using natural tannins, such as bark and leaves and it can take a month to produce. Another type of leather is chrome tanned leather. This type of leather involves the use of chemicals in its production. Many companies use chrome tanned leather because it is quick to make and is therefore much cheaper. The use of chemicals is bad for the environment and for the people who work in with it. Because to make vegetable tanned leather is a slow process this makes it more expensive.
Chrome tanned leather usually comes in more vibrant colours, although natural vegetable tanned leather can be painted in any colour using leather paints. Good quality vegetable tanned leather should last a life time and will develop a beautiful patina over time. Vegetable tanned leather is often shortened to ‘veg tan’. When it comes to leather hides, you can buy different parts, such as a whole hide, a side, shoulder, back, butt or belly. The belly is the softest and stretchiest so it is not recommended for making bags or belts. The butt is the strongest and thickest part of a leather hide. A leather hide has two sides, a front and back (or top and bottom). The front is called the grain side and it refers to the smooth, finished side of the leather. The back is often called the flesh or fleshy side which is the fuzzy side of the hide where there are more fibres.
We recommend using vegetable tanned leather if you want to make good quality products and it is what we use in our bag and accessory making tutorials. If you are looking for a cheaper alternative, then perhaps look for leather off-cuts that would otherwise go to waste. You might get these from a local furniture maker for instance. This is usually not vegetable tanned and instead is chrome tanned leather but it is a good way to practice making leather goods and to reduce waste.