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Calfskin, kipskin: why choose one over the other?


They come from the same animal species – cattle – and yet, calfskin leather and kipskin leather are two leathers that differ, both in their characteristics and in their uses. How do you know why and when to use one rather than the other? To understand what makes them unique, we need to look at their differences.

Calf, vachette: definitions

If you are interested in the characteristics of leather, you need to be interested in the animal. Whether for leather or meat, the designation of calf is not trivial, and is in fact defined by law. In France, and in the European Union, an animal under eight months of age is called a calf. After this period, the young cattle are no longer calves. It feeds on something other than milk, grazes on grass in the fields, its breeding method changes, and its characteristics evolve naturally. Female (heifer then cow) or male (steer or bullock, then ox or bull), the animal is considered to be an adult at 24 months.

But then what is a vachette? Is it a small cow? In the world of leather, kipskin is a generic term for leather made from the hides of vachettes, i.e. adult cattle, both male and female. The vachette is simply three times older than the calf. We are thus not referring to a young cow or a species with miniature characteristics. There is also no such thing as “beef leather” or “cow leather”.

The origins

While the names of these leathers cannot be explained without talking about the animals, we must also talk about their origin. Where do these hides come from? Those used by Neolithic man for clothing and bedding came from the animals he domesticated for food. In our times, this has still not changed: leather work is intrinsically linked to cattle breeding. The tanner is part of a chain of work that begins long before him, with the breeder, the meat producer. By recovering the latter’s waste and transforming it, the tanner adds value to it.

“Nothing is lost… everything is transformed…” This economic model is therefore based on our consumption of meat and milk. In other words, if we stopped eating veal, there would be no more calfskin leather. It is the veal-consuming countries that produce calfskin, mainly in Europe. Veal Milanese or Blanquette… veal farms are mainly found in France, the Netherlands and Italy, and calfskin is a European speciality.

From the breeder to the tanner

The tanner collects what he is given. Because of our consumption, veal farms are smaller than beef or dairy farms. Calfskin is therefore produced to a lesser extent than kipskin. This is one of the reasons for the price of calfskin. In addition, cattle are not raised to produce beautiful hides but primarily to produce muscle. The rearing conditions are not necessarily adapted to the constraints of the tanner. One example is barbed wire. While practical for the breeder because it delimits a grazing area, barbed wire is the enemy of the tanner. It scratches the animal, damaging its hide and leaving an irreversible mark: it can render the leather unusable.

As calves do not leave the stable much, they are less likely to damage their hide. In adult cattle, the opposite is true. Traces of parasites, insect bites, bolt marks… are major constraints for the tanner: he has to sort out his hides, sometimes conceal the defects. Thus, specific work is sometimes carried out on hides in the tannery. This is the case with rectified kipskin. Resins are applied to make the leather more resistant and also to mask scratches and other marks.

The characteristics

Different ages, different breeding conditions… calfskin and kipskin cannot have the same characteristics. The first physical difference is the size. The whole skin of an adult animal is at least twice as large as that of a calf. The second difference is the quality of the hide. It becomes thicker as the animal grows in age and muscle mass. In calves, the dermal fibres are younger and thinner. Its hair is not as thick as that of the adult animal. The upper part of the calf’s hide (called the grain) is therefore characterised by its fineness and flexibility. The pores containing the hair are less coarse and visible than those of the adult cattle.

These age-related differences are still visible and noticeable in the finished leather. Full grain calfskin is naturally finer than full grain kipskin. As a result, it is considered to be of higher quality than kipskin. With its near-perfect aesthetics, calfskin is synonymous with refinement and luxury. In contrast, the usable surface of kipskin is much larger, and its thickness can have interesting uses.

Working the leather

These characteristics imply differences in tannery work. During the transformation process of the hides, the tanner decides on the best finish to give them. To do this, he studies the intrinsic qualities of each hide in detail. Some will be given a very high-quality finish, others will be given a more layered finish (e.g. with a grain). As calfskin is very soft, certain finishes are meant only for it. The best known and highest quality, the famous “box-calf”, is a benchmark in the world of tanning. The way the calfskin is tanned gives the hide durability, wear resistance and transparency. Its beauty seems to be in its purest form and it is much appreciated.

When the tanner works with a hide, its suppleness and its fineness are significant advantages. When slitting (cutting through the thickness of the hide), calfskin will give a cleaner result. From the outset, full grain calfskin is therefore a product of exceptional quality. But this finesse can have its drawbacks. The calfskin scraps obtained by slitting are not always usable and are often sent for recycling. On the other hand, one of the qualities of kipskin is that it is thick enough for the split hide to be usable after splitting. This split kipskin is more affordable than full grain leather. It is similar to corrected grain kipskin, but with less resistance and longevity.

A leather for every project

As each type of leather has its own characteristics, every project deserves to be studied to find the leather that best suits it. The use of calfskin leather is not recommended for covering large surfaces, for reasons of size and price. In automobile upholstery leather, kipskin will therefore be ideal. It is naturally used in furniture (kipskin armchairs and sofas) as well as in clothing (men’s jackets). The kipskin bag is a common leather goods product.

Calfskin is more exclusive and more precious. Calfskin bags, wallets and belts are considered premium products. Considered to be the height of sophistication, some brands even go as far as to use calfskin leather for lining. Silky and supple, this lining highlights the luxurious side of a leather goods creation. A calfskin bag with a calfskin lining or tri-lining (the invisible inner reinforcement) is an ultra-luxury product. A natural fulling in the tannery will have made the leather resistant to key scratches or coin marks.

In footwear too, calfskin is very popular with high-end brands. Iconic models such as Derbies, Richelieu, ankle boots or moccasins take advantage of its flexibility and pure beauty. For these exceptional products, the shoe manufacturers also use vegetable-tanned calfskin for the lining. Another type of shoe, another type of leather: trainers are flourishing, mostly those made of kipskin. The biggest sports brands produce their most popular models in large quantities.

Their upkeep

Caring for calfskin does not differ fundamentally from that of kipskin. To know how to clean kipskin, you need to consider its finish. Depending on whether it is split kipskin or full grain kipskin, the procedures are not the same. Split leather should be maintained dry, using a special brush. Full grain leather can be cleaned with glycerine soap or suitable milk. The same applies to full grain calfskin or grained calfskin. Although they look different, the care procedures will be the same. When well cared for and nourished, calfskin and kipskin will stand the test of time.

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