September 11, 2021 6 min read

Have you ever gone in to look for new leather shoes for some fancy occasion, whether it is a wedding, interview, or birthday party, and you look through all the different shoe types? You might then wonder how each shoe type appeals to an audience large enough to justify its presence on the rack. 

One type of shoe might speak to you, but the others are simply not part of your aesthetic. There are so many options to fit different tastes, especially when it comes to nicer dress clothes.

One word that is often used in this field of fashion is “patent leather.” But what is it exactly, and what purpose does it serve?

This type of leather appears extremely glossy and almost wet to the eye. It is traditionally what we think of as being sported by tap dancers because of its extremely shiny look. Just like everyone has their favorite sports team or favorite TV show, at Andar, we have a favorite leather. Seriously, we could go on and on about our favorite: full grain leather.  

In this article, we are going to discuss how leather ends up looking like that after being taken from a cowhide while talking about the history, production of a whole range of leather essentials.

Read on to learn more about “patent leather” and what it is used for.

A Bit Of History

 Patent leather has a long and rich history, just like most types of leather. While it may seem modern, it actually has roots that stretch back to the 18th century.

This section will break down a bit of its history and clear up the nuance with its moniker.

Earliest Sightings

The beginnings of patent leather actually do not start in the leather industry but in the history of rubber. When rubber was brought from Italy to England in the mid-1700s, it was a revelation that changed many industries by infusing, coating, or otherwise incorporating rubber into their products. This is seen in the textiles industry in particular, including the leather industry. 

The Guiding Hand: The Patent

In Birmingham, England, during the 1790s, a man we only know by the last name of Hand put in a patent on a combination of rubber and leather. More specifically, his patent covered the process of taking a piece of leather and coating it with a rubber mixture to make it more water-resistant. 

This is truly where the name patent comes from. It was his patent that gave it that name.

Hand was inspired by the weather of his country. His patent described taking a reduced rubber coating and putting it on full-grain leather to keep it from soiling in the brutal winters of England. It became extremely popular and has been included in the leather section of stores and retailers ever since.

Modernization

Hand’s original invention didn’t begin to catch on until World War II, when the plastics boom began. With the advent of more plastics in Western Europe and the US, this sort of patent leather was found to be a viable option for production with plastics. 

Instead of having to use real, expensive leather just to be coated over with rubber or plastics, manufacturers figured out that leather does not necessarily need to be underneath that coating. They found a much cheaper way to make the base layer of this patent leather, now known as PU leather.

PU leather stands for polyurethane leather. It is a mixture of plastics that can be manufactured to look like leather. So, when coated with more plastic, the end result is a textile that is shiny and water-resistant. However, its quality does tend to leave something to be desired.

Like in all industries, truth meets theories in a way that creates a sense of magic and mystery. The leather industry is no different. Here is a good theory to chew on:

Some have pointed out that the Space Race might have also had an impact on the explosion of patent leather in the 1960s since the idea of space fashion was all the rage. While there is very little evidence to really support this claim, it is a fun connection.

The Process of Making Patent Leather Today

In our modern era, patent leather is now a mixture of plastics coated in a mixture of plastics. It is a highly chemical product in its impact on the environment, yet is completely vegan.

This section will explore a couple of the common production methods that describe what really comes with a patent leather item. 

Layering

Historically, layering techniques formed patent leather. While this method is still used today, it is not considered the most efficient. However, you can still make it this way today, even in your own home, if you have the materials, as it is a pretty manual process.

Layering consists of taking the coating agent and brushing it on the tanned leather in layers. You wait for one layer to dry before applying another. Think of painting. This method allows you to have the most control of the coating agent.

Spray

This is the most common type of manufacturing for PU leather. Like the layering, you apply the coating agent to an already “tanned” (this is in sassy quotation marks because if you are using the spray method, you definitely do not have truly tanned leather, but PU leather). Spraying is more efficient but has less of an element of control in general.

These coatings also have the benefit of being able to be applied to larger piles of PU leather at the same time. This is really the sign of an industrialized and modernized type of leather. 

How Does Patent Leather Compare To Full Grain?

This is perhaps the most intriguing question because patent leather does definitely have a place in our world. It has some advantages to it, but in general, this section will try to show that full-grain leather has an equally potent set of advantages in most situations.

The main parts that we will take into consideration are durability, style, and waterproofing. 

Durability

Because patent leather today is mostly made of PU leather (plastic) coated in plastic, it is susceptible to major wear and tear. Because of the chemical makeup of the coating, it also can become discolored toward a more yellow hue.

Instead of the fraying and dulling of patent leather, the aesthetics of full-grain get better over time with the development of its beautiful patina

Full-grain holds up better aesthetically and functionally as well. It is made to last many years, but most PU leathers actually degrade significantly over the course of a few years. In addition, the plastic coating on patent leather tends to crack quite easily after frequent use, so its clean, glossy look is more ephemeral than one would hope.

Waterproofing

While the original reason for choosing patent leather seemed to be its waterproofing agent, this is a short-lived benefit. Because the patent leather that you can buy today will not hold up long during frequent use, this benefit is minimal. Full-grain leather can be damaged with a lot of water, but it has a natural resistance to water when the leather is properly maintained.

Style

Full-grain leather actually develops an attractive patina, whereas patent leather cracks and yellows. On the other hand, patent leather can be found in more colors and types of looks which is a plus to those looking for a dash of unexpected style. 

Patent Leather Has a Cool History, Sad Present

Patent leather started as a combination of rubber and leather. These textiles were created side-by-side for a long time in the industrial cities of Birmingham and Manchester. An almost-mythical man known as Hands decided to combine them to create a more waterproof sort of leather.

From here, the advent of plastics has made patent leather a much cheaper product than it used to be.

We may be biased, but patent leather pales in comparison with full-grain leather. Full grain leather takes on the day and only looks better as it carries you through your adventures. Patent leather wilts under pressure, whereas full-grain leather rises to the occasion. 

 

Sources:

A Brief History of Rubber | Mongabay 

US20020094737A1 - Polyurethane resin composition for synthetic leather and process for making synthetic leather fabrics | Google Patents

A Brief History of Plastic's Conquest of the World | Scientific American


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