Leather shoes

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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 one piece of cowhide with a grass lining.

The famous footwear from the glacier mummy Ötzi is about 5,300 years old. This shoe structure was surprisingly complex. The upper (outer shoe) was made of deerskin with hair side facing out as protection against moisture and the sole was made of bearskin with hair side facing inside, offering excellent heat retention properties.

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

The oldest actual footwear was a pair of sandals unearthed by archaeologists from the Arnold Research Cave in Missouri, USA. Made from plants they are 8,300 years old.


Roman legionary sandal 1st century AD (DLM - German Leather Museum in Offenbach).


Cow's Mouth shoe 16th century (DLM - German Leather Museum in Offenbach).

Why leather?

Shoes are made from many different materials and in infinite colours and shapes. In the early days, the shape and appearance of a shoe was solely to protect the foot against injuries and the climate. However, in more modern times shoe styles have been heavily influenced by fashion and used to display the status of the wearer. As well as being more comfortable and better suited to the weather, modern footwear is specially designed for specific uses, including women's and men's shoes, slippers, sneakers, boots, hiking boots, sandals and much more.

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 can be formed, sewn, and made waterproof without losing its breathability. It is also very robust and offers excellent protection against foot injuries. You will never sweat as much in leather shoes, compared to those made from other materials. While fabric is also breathable, its waterproofing qualities and the level of protection it provides against injuries is significantly inferior to leather. Through these superior properties leather, is still the best material for shoes. Most substitute materials are processed solely for price reasons.

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. The most common types of leather are pigmented smooth leather (pigment binder coating on the grain side), aniline leather (open pore grain side leather), waxed or oiled leathersuede and nubuck. Vegetable-tanned cow hide is commonly processed for sole leather. In Europe, footwear manufacturers are required to clearly state the type of materials and processes.

The shoe industry is the world's largest user of leathers, manufacturing 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, making it the biggest producer. By comparison, only 26 million pairs of shoes are produced in Germany and roughly 5 million pairs of shoes are made in the UK (discounting the two main producers ‘New Balance’ & ‘Hotter’ (britishfootwearassociation.co.uk).

Top of the shoe-buying tree is the USA. Statistically, every American buys six pairs of shoes every year. In Europe, Japan and Canada, consumers purchase between three and five pairs per year, whereas the average Chinese customer buys 2.5 pairs of shoes per year.

In Germany, every woman has 17.3 pairs of shoes at home and men have 8.2 pairs (according to a survey carried out in 2014). This statistic is also confirmed by the output behavior. According to a study from 2015, women spend twice as much on shoes as men.

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High-quality custom-made shoes made from ostrich leather (made by www.pantofi-lux.ro). - Medium-priced shoes in a shoe shop. - Cheap shoes on a market stall.


The labelling requirement for shoes

In Europe, footwear manufacturers must fulfil labelling requirements on all their items: Directive 94/11/EC (European standard): Directive of Euorpean Parliament and Counciel on the approximation of the laws, regulations and administrative provisions of the Member States relating to labelling of the materials used in the main components of footwear for sale to the consumer.

They are obliged to state clearly the exact materials used in making the different parts of the shoe either in words or symbols.

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The following components of a shoe must be identified in terms of the material used:

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Image 1: Uppers: The outer surface area of the upper.

Image 2: Lining and insole: The surface area of the lining and insole inside the shoe.

Image 3: Sole: The outer sole that is in contact with the floor.

The specified material must make up 80% of the total materials used. In the event of several materials being processed (e.g. leather and textile as upper material), the main materials must be specified.

The following materials are distinguished:

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Image 1: Leather: This is genuine animal hide and skin without any changes to the original structure of the fibre. Materials that consist of dissolved or crushed leather fibres and processed into sheets are not "leather". Any colour film or layer applied to the surface of leather cannot be thicker than 0.15 mm.

Image 2: Coated leather: This is leather with a painting or film thicker than 0.15 mm, but no more than 1/3 of the total thickness. Anything above this, then it must be described as synthetic leather.

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

Image 4: Other Material: This covers all the materials not covered in the upper groups, such as rubber or plastic for soles.

Leather quality of shoes

There are many criteria that define the quality of a shoe:

  • Rub fastness (the resistance of the leather surface to mechanical abrasion)
  • Water vapour permeability
  • Tear resistance (the force that must be applied to increase existing tears)
  • Discolouration (the staining of socks caused by the leather lining inside the shoe)
  • Adhesion of the leather colour
  • Bending behaviour
  • Light fastness (resistance of the material's colour to fading)

Main leather terms for shoes


The upper is leather on the visible side of the shoe. It makes up the bulk of the processed leather for shoes. The variety of processed leathers is unlimited, including skins and hides from many species. It is common for uppers to be made from cowhide, calfskin, goatskin, sheepskin and even horsehide at a premium price. Skins of exotic animals are also used to make shoe uppers, including Crocodile leather, snake leather and many other exotic leathers. Depending on the desired look and finish, leather can be coarse or fine-grained, matt or glossy, metallic or luminous. Most upper leather is chrome-tanned.




Upper leather in many variations: coloured - perforated - carved.


Sole leather

When the sole of a shoe is made of leather, it's called a leather sole. Sole leather is thick (2.5 - 6 mm) not very pliable and solid vegetable-tanned leather. Particularly strong and resistant sole leather was traditionally produced in pit tanning.



Leather soles Made in Germany and Made in Portugal made from cowhide.




Leather sole, made in Spain with a sensitive lightly sanded leather.



Sometimes the leather sole is almost the whole shoe (leather sandals made by Selestudio).



Customer order for COLOURLOCK: Recoloring of a leather sole in blue as a design study.



Not really easy to care: Golf shoes with white suede as sole and rubber studs.


COLOURLOCK Leather Sole Oil.

Leather lining

Shoes can have a leather lining inside. It is not the leather where the foot rests but the part which is in contact with the upper part of the foot in the shoe. A leather lining therefore needs to feel good and be permeable to water vapour, so you do not sweat. Leather from cowhide, calfskin, goatskin, sheepskin and pigskin is used to make shoe linings.

Shoe Care - Leather selection

There are a wide range of leather care products for shoes and most retailers offer their own company-branded shoe care products. However, there is an endless choice of leather types in footwear. From easy-care pigmented smooth leather to pull up leather to highly sensitive aniline leather or suede and nubuck. Often, customers are not aware of the sensitivity of some types of leather and expect waterproofing treatments to be very durable or last a lot longer.


  • Leather shoes are available in all imaginable types of leather. Some of these many types of leather are very sensitive and not easy to maintain. These include suede, nubuck or aniline leather. These porous leathers are always sensitive! Waterproofing treatment will not make the shoes permanently impervious to stains. Always carry out a water rubbing test.

Leather shoes are available in all imaginable types of leather. Some of these many types of leather are very sensitive and not easy to maintain. These include suede, nubuck or aniline leather. These open-pore leathers are always sensitive! No amount of waterproofing treatment will make the shoes impervious to stains. Over time the waterproof treatment will wear off and the leather will always retain its sensitiveness. Always carry out a water rubbing test. Rub a drop of water on the surface to check if it penetrates the surface of the leather and darkens it. If water does penetrate, remember the shoe or boot is not suitable for wet weather! Not even with a waterproof treatment. No care products can make this leather insensitive. Otherwise it would have been made by the manufacturer!

  • Bright leather is more sensitive than dark leather. Stains and scratches on bright shoes are much more visible and can be less easily removed with care and cleaning products. If a bright leather is also porous, it will require more care and maybe is better restricted to special occasions.
  • Leather shoes can discolour inside. Carry out a rub test using a dry white cloth. This way you can check what will happen to light-coloured socks.
  • There are certain products offered to widen tight shoes. But it is safe to say only buy shoes that really fit as the scope for expanding the leather is very low.




With such porous bright aniline leathers an intense waterproof is not sufficient protection. This is fair-weather footwear.


Video about shoe care

Cleaning and care of aniline and porous leather shoes.

Cleaning and care of suede and nubuck shoes.

Cleaning and care of greased leather shoes.

Additional information

Bespoke shoes

Shoes are also manufactured in Europe. Artworks are created by custom made shoe manufacturers, which sometimes process exotic leathers.

A video about the production process of leather shoes.



Shoes made of ostrich leather and blue golf shoes made by Himer bespoke shoes.




Bespoke shoes made of stingray leather made by Himer bespoke shoes.


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Ironed salmon leather shoes and ostrich leather shoes made by Jacob, F. Shoes.


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Stingray leather and cordovan shoes made by Jacob, F. Shoes.


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Eel leather and Alligator leather shoes made by Jacob, F. Shoes.


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Beautiful leather design.


Historic shoes

Shoes have had a wide variety of colours and shapes over the centuries and cultures.

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Women's shoe made of gold leather - Roman legionary sandal 1st cent. AD (DLM - German Leather Museum in Offenbach).


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Shoe from the time around 1540 - Pointed shoe (DLM - German Leather Museum in Offenbach).


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Shoe Chopine from Venice from the time around 1600 - Lady's shoe (height of fashion reasons) (DLM - German Leather Museum in Offenbach).


Picture gallery from the world of leather shoes



Trainers made of suede.



cow hide shoes.



sheepskin slippers.



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Beautiful painted shoes.


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Leather boots custom made for 2.500 €, size 47, 15 cm heel made by (www.ledermanufaktur.com).

Snakeskin - stretch leather - Eel leather.




"Used-Look" - Embossed Shoe.




Shoe made of suede - Leather ice-skates.




Shoes of a minister of the green party in sneakers at the swearing in as Environment Ministers in Germany. - Toe shoe (DLM - German Leather Museum in Offenbach).




Leather boots made of snakeskin. - Printed lady's shoe from Spain.



Reproduction of juggler’s shoes from the middle ages Jacob, F. Shoes and www.ledermanufaktur.com.




Metallic leather and patent leather.



Patchwork shoes.


Additional information