Animal hides have been used by humans for thousands of years. Cro-Magnon humans used crude stone scraper tools to clean the fat off the inner hides and probably tanned it into leather for basic, everyday needs. Ancient cultures independently learned to turn cowhide into leather. North American Indians turned leather making and crafting into an art form. Twenty-first century science still has not invented a fabric to replace it.
The quality of leather is determined by its location on the hide. A full cowhide is cut into five basic sections. The two belly segments on the lower hide include the abdomen and upper legs. This is the lowest grade, prone to defects and irregularities. The two bends, from the top of the cow's back have higher tensile strength with fewer defects. The best cowhide is the front shoulder part, from behind the cow's head to a third of the way down its back. This cut has the best grain and texture of the entire hide.
Strength and Durability
Cowhide leather has many properties making it a superior material for upholstery, clothing, hats, handbags, belts and footwear. It's thicker, stronger and less prone to cracking than other animal leather, including horsehide, goat and sheepskin. Cow leather clothing is flexible, breathable and supple, while conforming to the wearer's body shape. Cowhide leather looks good dyed or left natural. It's durable, ages well and lasts up to five times longer than fabric. Its properties of toughness, tear and puncture resistance are the reason motorcycle riders wear it. It naturally repels moisture, retains its shape, and resists sun and heat damage, making it ideal for outerwear.
The highest quality cowhide leather is full grain leather. It's the strongest grade, from the highest level of the cow's skin, just under the hair layer. Leather from the uppermost epidermal layer is tougher by virtue of its close knit, tightly interlinked skin fibers. Full grain leather is made from the least damaged natural skins and is not milled or treated by buffing or sanding to remove blemishes and defects in the leather's surface. Full grain leather may not be hot plate treated, a process of stamping it with heated metal plates to impress an artificial texture mimicking full grain leather. These processes tear the fibers, lowering the tensile strength of the leather.