There’s nothing like the feeling of relaxing into the warm, supple embrace of your bespoke leather sofa. But, as you kick back and unwind with a good book, a cup of coffee or just to enjoy your favourite TV show, you’re probably unaware that you are actually sitting on over four thousand years of history. The story of leather sofa manufacturing takes in all the great periods and features of both world history and civilisation – and while it may not look very much like a battered old 1960’s police box, the humble leather sofa has been travelling down the centuries since before you (or indeed, your grandparents) where even born…
The history of using leather for sofas, couches and other related seating furniture goes back just as far as the ancient art of leather making itself. From the earliest times, humans became adept at utilising the natural resources around them: hence once an animal had been killed for its meat – either as a result of hunting or later deliberate farming – people made as much use of every single part. Bones could be cut and shaped into utensils while the skin could be worn to ward off inclement weather. However, as time went on the ancient peoples realised that a far more durable substance could be made out of nearly all animal skins, a product which was hardwearing, superbly practical and highly sought after by those who wanted to show off their status and nobility: leather.
A Leather Sofa Fit for a Pharaoh
The earliest records of leather sofa manufacturing date back to at least 2000 BC and the mighty Egyptian civilisation that grew up around the Nile delta. In a land where fabulous opulence amongst the rich and highborn was taken as standard what you sat on was of prime importance. While the slaves and ordinary citizens had to be content with the floor (or at best some old straw) to rest on, the privileged wanted furniture that befitted their station in life and leather was just the kind of premium material to fit the bill. While the Egyptian sofa would have been more akin to what we would recognise today as chaise longue, it’s a testament to the skill and craftsmanship of the ancient Egyptians that a few examples of early leather sofas still exist today in museums around the world. And while your local vicar or crematorium might raise an eyebrow today, for the Egyptians highly valued goods and material possessions were expected to follow you into the afterlife – being entombed along with the bodies of their owners for use in the great hereafter.
Fast forward through the centuries and we come to what many consider to be the height of the classical period of history – that of the ancient Greeks and later, the Roman Empire. Such was the status of leather seating that there are examples of thrones being constructed out of this most luxurious of materials – mighty Zeus himself, was pictured as ruling the squabbling pantheon of gods atop Mount Olympus, in a leather throne. The Romans, in particular, took the idea of leather sofas to heart, using it as a hardwearing yet prestigious covering for the long low couches so favoured of the nobility. It takes only a little imagination to visualise the Caesar reclining on a leather sofa – propped up by velvet cushions – at one of the splendid banquets the Romans were so famous for.
Such was the renown and status afforded to leather sofas that only men were allowed to use them – women being forced to either sit on ordinary wooden chairs or even just a few cushions scattered on the floor during mealtimes or whilst conducting business. Thankfully, the Romans rather backward attitude to women being allowed to sit on the leather sofas disappeared with the collapse of the Empire and the sacking of Rome in 410 AD.
Ye Olde Leather Sofa Shoppe
Thanks to Monty Python, the Dark Ages, and their successor period of the Middle Ages, are viewed as a time when basically 99.99% of the population spent their time living in mud huts and eating dung. Certainly during the time from the Roman exodus from Britain up to around 1500 AD leather sofas and furniture, in general, was a privilege reserved only for the King, his nobles and well to do of the kingdom. While leather production itself was already a well-established trade, it is ironic that those who worked in the tanning industry were probably the least likely of people to actually own any leather furniture. Leather was still considered a rich man’s material – especially when it came to using it for anything a frivolous as using it as something to sit on.
Ironically, the process of making leather was one of history’s truly awful jobs – with the people working in tanneries often being vilified and shunned by the rest of the population. Why? Well, for a start the process of turning animal hides into beautiful, workable leather meant working day after day, in the kind of stink that even a dog with no nose wouldn’t find amusing. First came the process of removing the leftover pieces of flesh and fat after the animal had been skinned – Often this as accomplished by soaking the hides for weeks at a time in a rather offensive mix of lime, water, stale urine and dung. Once the hides had been ‘maturing’ in this ripest of solutions for the required time, the tanners would use make use of a broad-bladed knife to scrape away all the putrefying remnants of tissue leaving the clean hide ready to be worked into fine leather.
Even in Medieval times, the awful stink of tannery was something that no-one wanted to live next door to. Hence in many cities leather manufacturing was by law only to be done outside the city walls (and well away from the rest of the population). Even then, washing the hides clean would normally involve dunking them in the local stream or river – the same water in which just a few miles downstream their neighbours would be washing in and drinking from…
The Industrial Revolution, the 20th Century and the Rise of the Leather Sofa
The advent of the mechanisation revolutionised many areas of production – with leather manufacturing being one of them. The industrial revolution produced an explosion of ‘mass produced’ goods onto the marketplace – for the first time putting what had been considered luxury goods affordable only by the truly rich with the reach and financial means of the rest of the population. Here we see the roots of the first true leather sofa – with many of our longstanding design classics and ideas about what constitutes a great leather sofa being born. While some things were still done by hand, innovation and new techniques saw a huge surge in the use of new tanning techniques and dyes to produce a host of new types of leather with a greater variety of appearances – as well as driving down costs. For the first time, leather sofa manufacturing was able to produce goods that were affordable for more than the ultra-rich. Leather sofas began to make their presence felt in ordinary middle-class homes – offering a feeling of affordable luxury and homeliness.
By the time that the 20th century rolled around leather sofa manufacturing was now a well-established trade with centuries of tradition and expert craftwork behind it. The Edwardians (as well as their predecessors, the Victorians) had seen the addition of new hides, new colours and new designs – all of which led a renaissance of interest in home decor – with the leather sofa being at the heart of the modern idea of a comfortable living space for both family and friends. Leather furniture was seen as an affordable luxury – with sofas being the place where a family would gather to listen to the wireless and, as time went on, watch television.
Modern Leather Sofa Manufacturing
Today the choice and diversity of leather sofas is amazing. Although they still retain the air of comfort and timeless refinement that makes them highly sought after, leather sofas and the manufacturing processes have truly embraced the modern age. However, that doesn’t mean that genuine, handcrafted techniques have been abandoned. The leather sofa shop is still proud to produce leather sofas of stunningly high quality, in a dizzying range of styles, colours and materials, whilst still adhering to the high-quality, traditional craftsmanship our customers have rightly come to expect.
While we’ve come a long way from quality leather sofas being manufactured solely for the use of the elite, there’s a certain something about the warm, supple feel and comfortable embrace of a well-made leather sofa. We like to think that nothing says ‘durable’ more than four thousand years of history.
And while you may not be a Pharaoh or an Emperor, a British made, high-quality leather sofa is certainly enough of an affordable luxury to make you feel like the King (or Queen) of your own castle.