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As we prepare to be stunned by the latest high definition movie visuals and blown away by the sound blasted from our state-of-the-art audio system, it is easy to forget the seat beneath us. A lot of work goes into building and upholstering a high quality, comfortable chair or sofa and the choice of materials is an art form in itself.

Durable and flexible, leather is a popular option for home theater seating, adding a touch of class to any movie experience. The history of leather use is fascinating and stretches right back into the mists of time – perhaps as far as neanderthal times.

Ancient Origins

Exactly when humans first started working leather is unknown because even the hardiest, most well-preserved samples will eventually decompose. However, 40,000 year old neanderthal deer-bone tools found in the Dordogne region of France are thought to have been used to soften leather and make it shiny. Researchers have compared them with tools still used in the leather trade today and, by using them in the same way, managed to create the same ridges found on the prehistoric specimens.

 If the hypothesis is accurate, this dates leather-making to the dawn of modern humans who overlapped neanderthals at this time.

 A more clear-cut example of leather-working was discovered in 2008 by an Armenian excavation team in the Areni-1 cave complex. In the cool, insulated interior of the caves, undergraduate Diana Zardaryan found a complete leather shoe made from a single piece of leather. It was later dated to around 3,500 B.C., the earliest piece of leather footwear ever discovered. A slightly later example (around 3,200 B.C.) was worn by Otzi the Iceman, Europe’s oldest mummy.

 As humans moved from a nomadic, hunting lifestyle to more settled, farming-based civilizations the use of animal skins to make leather became more widespread and examples of everything from leather clothes, shoes and saddles to leather water-skins, bags, flasks and even scrolls have been found.

 By Ancient Greek times (12th to 9th Century B.C.), leather-working was well-established and Homer wrote about the methods people used to dry and decrease ox-hide in his famous Iliad. Leather was so popular in Roman times (8th Century B.C. To 5th Century A.D.) that the Roman army were sent to battle kitted out in it.

The Tanning Process – Not for the Squeamish

The first tanneries were banished to the outskirts of town, where the poor people lived, and when you understand the processes used to treat the skins prior to tanning, it is no surprise.

First, the freshly-removed skin was soaked before being scoured and pounded to remove the grease. Then they were either soaked in urine (collected from citizens for the purpose) or simply left to rot so that the hairs could be removed easily. Next, the skins would be softened – or ‘bated’ – using a solution containing animal dung or, in some tanneries, animal brains! The tanner would sometimes need to work the dung-soaked skin with their feet for up to three hours at a time.

 Unsurprisingly, the tanning profession was classified as a noxious trade and subject to specific public and environmental health regulations.

After the above preparation, the skin would be stretched while treated with a tanning agent. The name comes from the early use of wood tannin from oak trees but now refers to a range of chemicals used to alter the protein structure of hide and prevent it from decomposing. In the 1840s, tanners started using trivalent chromium for the purpose while today’s tanneries make use of a range of tannin including cedar oil and alum.

Today, many of the natural substances once used in the manufacture of leather have been replaced by a cocktail of chemicals including biocides, surfactants, degreasers, swell regulating agents, lime, sulfides, caustic soda, soda ash, formic acid and many more.

Leather Upholstery in Medieval and Modern Europe

The use of leather as a fabric for chair backs and seats is thought to date from the early Middle Ages (around the 5th Century A.D.) although there is limited evidence since chairs were less common in the home at that time and the few that there were will have mainly decomposed.  Leather upholstery did grow in popularity throughout the Middle Ages and by the dawn of the 14th Century the art of leather detailing had become well-established on the continent. The association of leather with status and luxury steadily grew and it is said that the walls of Pope Leo X’s palace were covered with velvet overlain by stamped and gilt leather.

The Renaissance period spawned a new era of ornamental seating with studded leather-upholstered high-backed chairs from Spain and Portugal becoming popular. Various types of hide were tried from calfskin to goat although cowhide emerged as the most economical option. In the late 1700s, the Chesterfield came on to the scene, a sofa design characterized by luxurious (often leather) upholstery, deep set buttons and arms and back set at the same height.

The first tanner to set up in the US was Experience Miller who arrived in New England in 1623. By 1650, there were 51 tanners in Massachusetts and the industry took a big step forward in the early 19th Century when Billerica native Samuel Parker devised a way to split hides to increase productivity.

The use of leather as a fabric for chair backs and seats is thought to date from the early Middle Ages (around the 5th Century A.D.) although there is limited evidence since chairs were less common in the home at that time and the few that there were will have mainly decomposed.  Leather upholstery did grow in popularity throughout the Middle Ages and by the dawn of the 14th Century the art of leather detailing had become well-established on the continent. The association of leather with status and luxury steadily grew and it is said that the walls of Pope Leo X’s palace were covered with velvet overlain by stamped and gilt leather.

The Renaissance period spawned a new era of ornamental seating with studded leather-upholstered high-backed chairs from Spain and Portugal becoming popular. Various types of hide were tried from calfskin to goat although cowhide emerged as the most economical option. In the late 1700s, the Chesterfield came on to the scene, a sofa design characterized by luxurious (often leather) upholstery, deep set buttons and arms and back set at the same height.

The first tanner to set up in the US was Experience Miller who arrived in New England in 1623. By 1650, there were 51 tanners in Massachusetts and the industry took a big step forward in the early 19th Century when Billerica native Samuel Parker devised a way to split hides to increase productivity.

Leather has become one of the most popular upholstery materials in the world although some people prefer fabric. This might be because they find it softer and less prone to fading or being scratched or sometimes because they dislike the way leather can get too hot or cold. On the other hand, leather tends to be easier to keep clean (less dusting and washing), more durable and with that enduring connection to luxury.

At Octane Seating, our My Octane program blends the best of both worlds by selecting premium, colorfast leathers tanned with hand-picked raw ingredients. Our leather home theater seats are designed to feel soft yet retain the long-lasting and low-maintenance characteristic of leather. Nevertheless, the choice will be mainly a personal one.

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