It’s not known when leather was first used to make shoes but the earliest find was excavated by archaeologists in an Armenian cave in 2010. Estimated to be 5,500 years old – between the Neolithic and Bronze Age – the shoe is made from cowhide with a grass lining. 

The famous footwear of the glacier mummy Ötzi is 5,300 years old. They were waterproof and wide, suitable for walking across snow. Deer hide was used for the top panels and bearskin for the soles and anetting made of tree bark. Soft grass was stuffed as padding and insulation between the mesh of the inner shoe and the shaft. This acted like a warm pair of socks. 

But the earliest representation of people wearing shoes is believed to be the drawings found in the Altamira cave in Spain, dating back about 15,000 years. 

The oldest actual footwear was unearthed by archaeologists from the Arnold Research Cave in Missouri, USA. Made from plants the slip-ons and sandals were estimated to be 8,000 years old. Despite being made from biodegradable material, the shoes survived due to the cave’s dry conditions.

Ancient Leather Shoes

Why leather for shoes?

Throughout the centuries, leather has been the primary material for shoes, mainly because it was always available in sufficient quantities. Today, although a variety of materials are used to make footwear, leather is still paramount, for a number of reasons. It’s malleable, can be sewn, embossed and made waterproof without losing its main quality of breathability. You will never sweat as much in leather shoes compared to those made from fabrics or other materials. It is also very robust and durable and offers excellent protection against injuries, in comparison to a fabric shoe. While materials, such as vinyl, can be made to look like the real thing and are cheaper, they can’t compete with the superior qualities of genuine leather.

Materials and figures

A wide variety of leathers are used to make shoe uppers and it’s not always easy to clearly differentiate between the types, such as PU, Faux, Split, etc. However, they can be categorised into the following main types:

  • Pigmented leather (surface-coloured)
  • Porous leather (aniline leather)
  • Suede and Nubuck 
  • Vegetable-tanned bovine leather for shoe soles.

The footwear industry is the world’s largest user of leathers, manufacturing approximately 14 billion pairs of leather shoes a year. Of these some 11.5 billion are made in Asian factories, with 8 billion pairs coming from China alone. By comparison, UK manufacturers produce roughly 5 million pairs annually

Top of the shoe-buying tree is the US. Statistically, every American buys six pairs a year. In Europe, Japan and Canada, consumers purchase somewhere between three and five pairs. 

Leather Shoes display

Understanding footwear labels & symbols

By law, all footwear manufacturers and importers are required to provide labelling clearly stating the main materials used to make the upper, outer sole, lining and sock, using either symbols or words. The label should be attached to at least one item of footwear per pair and it may also appear on the packaging. 

The Footwear Labelling Regulations 1995 apply to footwear of all descriptions, ranging from simple sandals to thigh-length boots, with certain exceptions for second hand footwear, footwear containing asbestos, protective footwear and for footwear intendedfor use in play by children under the age of 14. 

The label must state, in English or in a clear symbol, what material makes up 80% of:

  • the surface area of the upper
  • the surface area of the lining and sock (this refers to any area, which constitutes the inside of the footwear article, mainly the lining area of the ‘upper’ and the ‘insole’) 
  • the outer sole

Where multiple materials are used the two main components must be stated. There are other guidelines as to where the symbol must appear, including on at least one item of each pair and clearly visible in packaging materials. The shop should display a large notice explaining the different symbols. Online retailers are expected to provide the information in a clear format.

The following materials can be distinguished: 

Leather shoe materials guide

                                      Image 1 - The upper              Image 2 - Lining & sock             Image 3 - Outer sole


Leather Shoe material guidelines

 Image 1: Leather: This is genuine animal hide without any changes to the structure of the fibre. Materials that consist of dissolved or milled leather fibres and which have been glued and processed into sheets, are not classed as "leather". An applied colour or film layer must not be thicker than 0.15 mm.


 Image 2: Coated leather: This is leather with a film that is thicker than 0.15 mm but no more than 1/3 of the total thickness.  Anything above this, then it is classed as leatherette.

  Image 3: Textile: This means all natural and synthetic fabrics.

   Image 4: Other Material : This covers all the materials that are not covered by the upper groups. For example, rubber or plastic for soles.

Examples of the labeling of footwear:

      Labelling on leather shoe   Leather upper, insole and sole   Fur and wool boot


Quality Criteria

A variety of tests are carried out on shoe leather but these are the key ones for uppers and linings. 

  1. Rub fastness - It tests the resistance of the leather surface to mechanical abrasion. The abrasion effect of soling materials on upper materials and also other cases when damage can be caused in normal wear, particularly when wearers cross their legs and the sole of one foot rests on the upper of the other foot. It is also carried out to determine the amount of ‘marring’ of the leather surface or the finish and to assess the amount of colour transfer. The test can be carried out under dry or wet conditions by using a dry rubbing pad — or pre-wetting the rubbing pad in distilled water or a sweat solution prior to testing.
  2. Light Fastness - The purpose of light fastness testing is principally to predict a material’s resistance to fading, yellowing or darkening. It involves involves subjecting samples to intense artificial light to assess the impact on the material. In case of Aniline leather shoes, the light fastness test is considered very important. However, the test can also be employed to assess physical degradation such as cracking and shrinkage
  3. Permeability & Absorption test - Comfort is a vital factor when purchasing boots and shoes, and     removal of the moisture (sweat) from the sock, hose and inside of the shoe is an important aspect of delivering this comfort. 
  4. Bend Test - One of the most important wear properties of any footwear upper material is its resistance to flex cracking at the creases naturally caused by the foot bending during walking.
Goodyear Welted Shoe parts

Leather Shoe upper components

Leather shoe parts

  • Vamp

The ‘Upper’ is the leather on the visible side of the shoe. The section of the Upper that covers the front of the foot and runs as far as the back of the shoe is called the Vamp. It makes up the bulk of the processed leather for shoes. The variety of processed leathers is unlimited, and many different types of leather are processed. It is common for uppers to be made of cowhide, calfskin, goatskin, sheepskin or even horsehide at premium price. Many other skins of exotic animals are also used for shoe uppers. The leather can be coarse or fine grained, matt or high-gloss, metallic or fluorescent colors. Almost all leather uppers across the world are chrome tanned.

Uppers are available in many variants: Coloured - Perforated - Stamped + leather sectional.

  • Sole

The sole is the bottom part of the shoe. The sole and the upper make the entire shoe. The entire part of the shoe that sits below the wearer's foot is referred to as ‘Sole’. If the sole is made of leather, then one speaks of a leather sole. The leather used for this is called sole leather or leather sole. They are roughly 2.5-6mm in thickness, relatively hard, pliable vegetable tanned leather .

  • Insole

It is referred to the part between the sole and the foot. A layer of material that sits inside the shoe that creates a layer between the sole and the wearer’s foot.

High-quality shoes have an insole made of vegetable tanned leather with a thickness from 1.2-4millimeters. Due to the type of use this leather must be particularly sweat resistant.

Depending on the type of shoe, the leather for this part is mainly obtained from the neck or stomach, areas of the hide or skin. This leather is comfortable and very durable. However, it is expensive and difficult to process. 

Therefore insoles made nowadays in most leather shoes are made of synthetic fibres, other fabrics, thermoplastics and specially coated cardboard used (in the heel and metatarsal area often thin inferior leather is hidden). Or it is used in open visible part of the interior of the shoe leather as insole. Felt is also used for orthopaedic footwear. 

  • Lining

Lining is the part which is used in the inside of the shoe. It is the part where the upper part of the foot comes in contact with the shoe. A leather lining therefore needs to feel good and must be permeable to water vapour, so you do not sweat. Cowhide, calfskin, goatskin, sheepskin and pigskin are used to make shoe linings.

Shoe cleaners and shoe polishes 

There are a wide range of shoe care products and most retailers have their own shoe care products. However, there is also an endless choice of leathers used for footwear. From easy-care, pigmented smooth leathers on oiled leather to highly sensitive aniline leathers or Suede and Nubuck shoes. 

In most cases, customers are often unaware how sensitive their leather shoes are to water stains. Penetrated stains on porous aniline leather shoes, or suede shoes are not easy to clean. No amount of waterproof sprays or waxes will make it permanently waterproof. Stains and scratches on bright or light coloured shoes are usually more visible. Porous and bright coloured leather for shoes is the most sensitive combination. The only way to look after them is to avoid getting stains by wearing it in dry conditions.

If in doubt about the colour fastness of the inner lining, always carry out dry and wet rub tests using a bright cloth. 

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