Over the years, Itasca Leathergoods’ moccasins have developed a great base of fans because of their great colors and incredible fit. What most people really don’t realize, though, is that the credit for both of those traits lies solely in the leathers we use.
If a company’s primary focus is being the cheapest provider in the footwear category, they will search out lower quality leathers and cheap mass production in overseas factories – both of which ultimately lead to uncomfortable footwear and poor wear (and potentially a poorly feeling conscience for supporting those principles).
On the other hand, Itasca Leathergoods has purposely invested a great deal of time and effort into the exact opposite: Let’s find (or develop our own) amazing leathers that result in the most comfortable fit possible, great appearance, unmatched comfort, and long-lasting wear. And then let’s do our manufacturing in rural small-town America, providing good, stable jobs to the best group of workers you’ll ever find.
Digging a bit deeper
When you hear works like tanning, dyeing, ounces, temper, milling and finish you might be tempted to think about lying on the sand at the beach, coloring one’s hair, weighing out food portions, a toddler’s terrible twos, making flour, or how a fine wine goes down … but once again, it’s all about the leather. It’s always about the leather.
In simplest terms, tanning refers to the act of preserving an animal’s hide for long-term use. Without being tanned, the animal’s skins would simply harden and then decompose just like any other organic matter. Throughout the millennia (evidence of tanning goes back to about 8000 BC!) there have been many ways to preserve leather, but today the two most common methods are chrome tanning and vegetable tanning.
For chrome tanned leathers, the animal hides have their flesh, fat and hair removed and then they’re preserved in baths of chromium sulfate and other chromium salts. When complete, the resultant leather is a light bluish-grey color, no matter the species or the original color of the animal. From there, the hides are retanned using pigments for color and are then finished using a special combination of oils and waxes to give it a unique texture or “hand.” By comparison, vegetable tanned leathers are preserved with tannins and other matter from organic matter such as tree bark, leaves, wood, fruit and roots.
Chrome tanning tends to result in softer, more supple leathers that take dyes beautifully for bold, vibrant colors. When wet, chrome tanned leathers don’t discolor or lose their shape as severely as vegetable tanned leathers, and they don’t get hard and brittle when they dry out. From these traits, it’s fairly easy to guess that we always use chrome-tanned leather for moccasins.
Animal hides are quite variable in terms of thickness (thicker on the shoulder and thinner on the belly) and thus it’s necessary to run them through a splitting machine to shave off layers to achieve a uniform thickness. The top layer is called the top grain or full grain, while each subsequent lower layer is called a split, also known as suede. The thickness of leather is typically measured in ounces, measured with a gauge. Over the years, Itasca Leathergoods has slowly evolved from using a 4-ounce leather (1/16th inch) as it’s thickest to now using 5.5-ounce (5/64th inch) for uppers and up to 7-ounce (7/64th inch) on the soles. Not only does the thicker leather make a better-looking moccasin, they feel more substantial on the feet and provide noticeably better wear over time, especially with outdoor use.
As we’ve sought out thicker leathers, we’re aware that they could start feeling too thick or stiff, so we’ve worked with tanneries to soften the temper of the leather, making them super soft and super supple. The softness is achieved with milling, a process in which the fibers of the leather are broken by running them through a peg-and-hole system (think lawn aerator) without lessening the integrity or strength of the leather. Interestingly, it’s this process that gives our leathers a natural grain pattern (spectacular!) and the milling also results in a moccasin that breaks in easily. Our customers often comment that they’re a “better-than-barefoot” feel and that they’re soft and supple right from the first wearing.
And of course, all leather stretches to conform to the shape of your feet – so we recommend that you start with a snug (but not tight) fit.
What we’re up to, leather-wise….
Over time, Itasca Leathergoods has significantly diminished use of in-stock general purpose leathers, instead working with its primary leather distributor in California to develop custom leathers that are best suited for our moccasins. We’re exceptionally proud of the progress we’ve made over a few short years. We get to dictate the tanning methods, the thickness of the leather, how supple they are, their color (often color-matched to Pantone colors), how they feel in terms of waxes and oils. We know that we’re doing things with leather that haven’t been done before and we’re excited to share them with you.
I know that I get excited when I’m talking about our leather program, and I also know that our employees always tear into deliveries of new leather with infectious enthusiasm. I think we’re on the right path based on the customers’ reactions when they venture into one of our retail stores and exclaim with glee over the assortment of colors and styles.
This blog is new for us. Come along, stay tuned, get updates of important stuff by email, and (of course) order your own pair of wonderful handcrafted mocs from time to time.