You might’ve heard it before when interacting with leather workers, such as when searching for the perfect leather belt (which you just found). Despite the fact the term sounds fancy to a mere peasant like me, there really isn’t much creativity behind it. It’s just a use case and material. Bridle and Leather. The bridle comes from the fact that this style of leather is the preferred choice for horse bridles, and leather comes from the fact that it’s leather (for a clearer definition of leather please see Webster’s).
That is the basics, but it doesn’t answer why bridle leather is the perfect leather for bridling. The secret all lies in the tanning, wax stuffing, and the general production process. The process results in insanely durable leather that also is soft and possesses water resistance. The words below outline every step taken to ensure bridle leather displays the proper and desired characteristics.
Don’t let anyone fool you, the single most important aspect of any type of leather is picking a superior hide. A bad hide results in bad leather, period. An old saying about making chicken salad with a chicken by-product would apply here.
The hide selection is so important that Rolls Royce has hand selected a few farmers to supply all their leather goods. Often a tannery will partner with the food industry and take leather as a by-product to lower costs and maybe help the environment. These hides are meticulously inspected and will be removed from any marks like mosquito bites or more serious scars.
Once the hides arrive at the tannery they rub salt all over them like they are going to cook them and then place them in a pit of lime and water. This makes the hair loose and to pull through the ominous-sounding de-hairing and fleshing machines. Sometimes a de-hairing machine is just a long blade and a piece of wood.
Every leather has a different type of tanning process that changes the characteristics of the final product. Each process has its own unique advantages, disadvantages, and characteristics. Bridle leather has one of the most storied and traditional processes, vegetable tanning. A few different processes are listed below (there are really too many to count):
As you can see we prefer veg (like the cool kids call it) tanning the most because of its artistic nature and durable result. This reasoning (plus the fact it was the only one around when bridle leather was invented) is the reason bridle leather tanneries all use the vegetable tanning method.
Now the real fun begins. We get to “fat liquor” the leather. What does this mean? Well, basically the leather is taken out of the tanning area after a few months and placed in large vats full of water, oils, waxes, and tallows. The semi-treated leather begins to soak up this proprietary blend of herbs and spices to develop a more oily silky feeling. This step is part of the reason bridle leather is so durable, it is near impossible to dry out.
Pulling the leather out of the fat liquor we then move it to the hot stuffing area. The leather is warmed and then a liberal amount of waxes and tallows are applied for maximum penetration into the leather. This step dramatically improves durability and allows creates the above-average waster resistance trait that bridle leather carries.
Once we have the leather entirely stuffed we can begin considering what colors we want. Practically any color can be applied at this point through a variety of different application methods. Hand Staining, dye baths, and spray painting are all commonly used. The important thing to do here is to ensure all the texture and natural look of the leather are not lost in the dying process.
The final step at the tannery is conditioning and polishing the leather to give it a nice shiny finish. This step doesn’t do anything to increase the durability of the leather, but it will dramatically increase the value (price) because of how pretty it makes the leather look.
Once the leather is received by the artisan who is using the leather stamps, brandishing, or other steps might be taken to make the leather perfect for their use case. This is more of a decorative step that results in the variety of products you see on the market.
There you have it! That is what bridle leather is, how it is made, and a little of why we use it. If you have any more questions please email a tannery and they would love to walk you through it in more detail. Maybe even schedule a tour of a historic tannery if you're in the area!