It seems that one hallmark of “quality” that many people look for in leather products is whether it is soft, smooth, and supple. But of all the properties of leather that make it high quality, softness is not usually one of them, and many times it means quite the opposite. First, before we get into leather softness, let’s quickly discuss the ways hides are tanned to make leather, and talk about various animal hides and their properties.
There are two main ways to make leather: chrome tanning and vegetable tanning. Chrome tanning uses chromium salts to quickly tan the leather. The process can be very fast, taking only a couple of days to tan a whole hide. But the tradeoff is that the chemicals used to tan the hide burn through it, taking away some of the natural properties of leather. So its longevity is not a consideration. But the upside is that you can get a very soft leather quickly and cheaply.
Vegetable tanned leather is a very different process, one that has changed very little for hundreds of years. To make vegetable tanned leather, you use organic matter from tree bark and other such substances, to slowly tan a hide. It takes much longer this way—up to six weeks—and is more expensive to make because of this, but the result is a beautiful, tough, high quality leather. Vegetable tanned leather starts off stiff, but given time, use, and care, the leather relaxes and softens. And the best part of vegetable tanned leather is that it takes on a rich patina with use, growing richer in color over the years.
As for hides, if you can think of an animal, it has probably been tanned for its leather. Cow leather is the most prevalent obviously, but pigs (for footballs), deer, lambs, bison, eel, alligator, stingray, and even kangaroo have all been tanned to produce leathers, each with their own strengths, looks, and textures. Kangaroo, for example is one of the strongest leathers in the world. Typically when people think of soft leathers, they use leather gloves as a benchmark. But good leather gloves are usually made from deer or sheep skin (naturally soft hides), are chrome tanned, and are stretched repeatedly to ensure the softest feel. And what is good for gloves isn’t necessarily good for leather bags.
If you played baseball as a kid, you probably got your first glove and had to break it in. Brand new, it wasn’t nearly as soft or as smooth as Dad’s old glove. You may have put a baseball in it and put it under something heavy. You might have put a little mink oil or leather conditioner on it to try to soften it up a bit (which still works). But the best way to get that perfect, soft, supple leather you always wanted was to just go outside and use it day after day. Given time, your leather product will look and feel amazing. It might be tempting to get a cheaper bag that is chrome tanned and feels soft from day one, but that bag could stretch and distort even further, ruining it. But if you spring for a vegetable tanned bag instead, you’re going to be happier in the long run.