In theory, the hide or skin of most animals can be used to make leather. In practice, the hide or skin of only a few animals are sourced to make different types of leather.
The most common types of animal leather are cattle leather, alligator leather, fish leather, deerskin or deer leather and hog or pig leather.
And there are several pros and cons to each that manufacturers and buyers have to consider.
Cattle leather is the most common while alligator leather is not as common and hence expensive. Fish leather is relatively uncommon but cheaper than alligator leather. And deerskin leather has its specific uses. And last but not least, pig leather is substantially less common than cattle leather.
With their specific differences and functionality it’s hard to determine the right type of animal leather that is important to you as either a buyer or manufacturer.
The Tried and True: Cow Leather
Cattle leather is the most common of all types of animal leather. It is also the most affordable.
If you find any leather item that doesn’t necessarily state what type of leather it is, then you can pretty much assume it is cattle leather. There are around one and a half billion heads of cattle around the world with the count is on the rise.
It is unsurprising why cattle leather is so common and also so popular. Cattle leather has some useful properties, which is why it can be used to make so many diverse items.
Cattle leather is:
- Resistant to tear and puncture
- The tensile strength is substantially higher than other types of animal leather
- The material has effective heat insulation
It is by no means exotic leather or as “luxurious” as other types such as alligator leather, but it gets the job done.
It is necessary to draw a distinction between cow leather and cattle leather.
The latter is more diverse as you can make leather from the hide of a bison or the skin of a goat. The exact breed of cattle will also influence the eventual quality of the leather. Some cows have thicker hides while some have more lustrous hides. All types of cattle leather have similar manufacturing processes. They also lack the rich detail that is usually found in alligator leather or fish leather.
Cattle leather is effectively a blank slate, which is one of the reasons why many designers like working with it. One can come up with different patterns, textures and colors with cattle leather or cow leather. This type of animal hide is more receptive to different treatments making it better suited to create a custom design.
A Dangerous Luxury: Alligator Leather
Most species of crocodiles and alligators are protected all around the world. One cannot just hunt crocodiles or alligators for their leather. Since there aren’t as many farms of crocodiles and alligators, especially in comparison with cattle heads, their leather has become expensive and quite rare. They are deemed exotic.
Alligator leather is used in handbags, wallets, belts, shoes and hats. These accessories are usually quite expensive. Only major designer brands use alligator leather. The part of the hide used to make this leather is actually from the belly of the crocodile or alligator, not the back. The hide at the back is much tougher and also very rough to be made into fine leather.
Farming alligators or crocodiles is an expensive endeavor. Both need to consume a lot of food to grow to a substantial size when their hide can be harvested. Most gators or crocs that are harvested need to be two to three feet in size. The hide obtained from the belly is perhaps just enough to make leather for around four or six straps.
It is a rare commodity and the cost of raising gators or crocs don’t help the economics. Alligator leather will remain rare and hence exotic. That being said, it will continue to be expensive.
The Runner-Up: Buffalo Leather
A common type of animal leather that is used in the manufacturing of higher-end bags is buffalo leather.
It’s another common, easy obtainable type of animal leather that provides that more luxurious aesthetic for a fraction of the price of the more rare leather types already mentioned.
The appearance of a buffalo leather is preferred because the material doesn’t stretch which preserves the grain quality and patterning of the hide.
Buffalo Leather vs Cow Leather
For the similarities, buffalo and cow leather are similar in how common and obtainable the types of animal leather are. Also, they also feature a comparable strength and durability.
So what’s the difference?
Buffalo leather provides a more “luxurious” aesthetic with it’s grain patterning. For manufacturers, it provides that well-crafted artisan aesthetic that customers and individuals love.
In terms of appearance, buffalo leather is the winner. But from a functional standpoint, both buffalo leather and cow leather are comparable.
Cow Leather vs. Alligator Leather
Cow leather is cheaper than alligator leather and more readily available. It is more versatile too.
Alligator leather is more desirable because of its rareness. In terms of practicality, cow leather works just fine. Alligator leather is more resistant to moisture than cow leather. In addition, it is just as resistant to tear and puncture.
To the uninitiated, cow leather and alligator leather may not feel very different after they have been used to make identical accessories but those familiar will easily know. The physical appearance will be a telltale factor but many companies now treat cow leather to don a certain pattern and color and in some cases go for the grains to emulate the appearance of alligator leather.
Types of Animal Leather with Specific Functionality
Leather for Clothing & Accessories: Deerskin
Leather made from deerskin is soft and supple. Its softness and flexibility make it ideal for clothing.
Many accessories are made of deerskin leather, most notably gloves.
Deer leather is thin and hence unsuitable for any construction that needs to endure extensive use. Despite its thinness, it can be considerably durable. Cost of deer leather is substantially more than that of cattle leather, more specifically cowhide leather.
Deerskin leather is not resistant to moisture and hence it doesn’t find too many applications. It is not a versatile material.
Household Favorite: Pig/Hog Skin Leather
Leather made from pig skin is less expensive than deer leather. Pig skin is thin but it makes durable leather. It is widely used to make purses, footballs, journals and even garments.
Many household items are also made of pig leather. Pigskin leather doesn’t have a smooth texture, something almost synonymous with most types of animal leather. The surface is soft but somewhat bumpy.
This dappled attribute of pigskin leather makes it ideal for some items and unsuitable for others. Pigskin leather is much softer than cattle or cowhide leather but not as common.
Designer’s Favorite: Fish Skin Leather
Fish skin is also used to make leather, most notably salmon. Eels have been used to make fish leather but they are not as common as salmon. Fish leathers come in a myriad of colors. Metallic silver and bright red are the most common.
Fish leathers are known for their distinct pattern. The pattern of the scales remains firmly etched onto the leather.
There is an impeccable uniformity to such patterns in one piece of fish leather made from salmon skin. Most fish leathers will be glazed after the processing and tanning to sport a lustrous appearance.