What Are Enzymes and How Are They Used in Leather?

What Are Enzymes and How Are They Used in Leather?

Enzymes play an important role in the production of leather. From leather jackets and vests to skirts, dresses, belts and more, nearly all leather products are exposed to enzymes during production.

Leather consists of animal hide. There are different types of leather. Some types are made of sheepskin, whereas others are made of goat or cowhide. During production, however, manufacturers will expose the animal hide to enzymes. What are enzymes exactly, and how are they are used in leather?

The Basics of Enzymes

Enzymes are defined as catalytic proteins, meaning they trigger or accelerate chemical reactions. Research has shown that they are able to catalyze over 5,000 types of reactions. While other substances can trigger or accelerate chemical reactions as well, enzymes specifically trigger or accelerate chemical reactions in biological cells, such as animal hide.

Animal hide is the foundation of all types of leather. With that said, leather doesn’t consist of raw animal hide. To convert animal hide into leather, manufacturers must process it. Leather processing includes multiple stages. One of the first stages of leather processing is preparing the animal hide for tanning, which includes bathing it in an enzyme solution.

The enzymes used in leather production exhibit specific properties. They typically hydrolyze compounds like elastin and casein, for instance. As a result, enzymes can break down certain parts of animal hide. Manufacturers, though, must choose enzymes that are safe for leather. The enzymes used in leather production must not break down or otherwise damage collagen or keratin. Animal hide typically contains collagen and keratin. If broken down, it may become weaker.

How Enzymes Are Used in Leather

Manufacturers expose leather to enzymes for several reasons. Enzymes offer the perfect soaking solution. While production processes vary, many manufacturers will soak the animal hide in a water-diluted solution of enzymes during the preparation stage.

Enzymes are used to degrease animal hide when producing leather as well. Animal hide contains natural fats. Known as lipids, they can leave it feeling greasy. Fortunately, enzymes are a safe and effective degreasing agent for leather. Manufacturers can bathe the animal hide in an enzyme solution to degrease it.

One of the main benefits of using enzymes in leather production is a softer texture. If you’ve ever owned a real leather jacket — or any other garment made of real leather — you may recall its soft texture. Garments made of real leather are incredibly soft. They are arguably softer than traditional textiles like cotton. Enzymes help to create this superior level of softness.

When manufacturers bathe the animal hide in an enzyme solution, they make it softer. Enzymes are designed to trigger a chemical reaction in cells. Animal hide, of course, contains cells. Exposure to enzymes will result in a chemical reaction that breaks down some of the compounds within the animal hide. The end result is a softer texture.

The semi-flexible properties of leather is largely due to enzymes. Leather jackets and other garments aren’t stiff. Rather, they are semi-flexible. Enzymes give leather jackets and garments their semi-flexible properties. As the animal hide soaks up the enzyme solution, it will become softer and more flexible.

Enzymes and Appearance of Leather: What You Should

Enzymes can even change the appearance of leather. It helps to create a softer and more consistent tone. Without enzymes, leather may feature a dark and uneven tone. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with dark or uneven leather garments. If you want a garment with a softer and more consistent tone, though, you may want to choose an enzyme-soaked garment.

In addition to changing the physical characteristics of leather, enzymes change the appearance of leather. Animal hide often suffers from visual imperfections. It may have dark spots, for example, or it may have patches of discoloration. Regardless, manufacturers can fix these visual imperfections by bathing the animal hide in an enzyme solution. Exposure to the enzyme solution will “smooth out” the animal hide so that it features a softer and more consistent tone. As a result, visual imperfections will become less noticeable.

What About Amylases?

Some manufacturers use amylases when producing leather. Amylases are a specific class of enzymes. Like all enzymes, they are catalytic proteins that cause or accelerate chemical reactions. But amylases are a class of enzymes that are capable of catalyzing hydrolysis.

Hydrolysis is a chemical reaction that involves the use of a water molecule to split a compound. Amylases can hydrolyze starch to create more, smaller carbohydrate molecules. Jargon aside, amylases have similar effects on animal hide as other types of enzymes.

Amylases aren’t as common as other types of enzymes. Some manufacturers do, in fact, use them to produce leather, but most manufacturers use other enzymes.

Common types of enzymes used in leather production include the following:

  • Proteases
  • Lipases
  • Chondroitinases
  • Phospholipases

The Quality of the Leather Still Matters

If you’re planning to buy a leather jacket in the near future, you should still consider the quality of the leather. Enzymes are beneficial for all types of leather. It removes grease, improves softness, improves flexibility and creates a softer and more consistent tone. But there are different types of leather. High-quality leather will benefit more from enzymes than low-quality leather.

In terms of quality, napa leather is at the top of the list. Originating from Napa, California, it has an ultra-fine grain. You can find jackets, skirts, dresses and many other garments made of napa leather. Most manufacturers use enzymes when producing napa leather. Enzymes amplify the attractive properties and characteristics of napa leather.

The bottom line is that you shouldn’t focus strictly on the use of enzymes when shopping for leather garments. Leather quality is equally if not more important.

In Conclusion

Converting raw animal hide into ready-to-wear leather is an extensive, time-consuming process. It takes about one to two weeks on average for manufacturers to produce leather. During this production process, manufacturers will expose the raw animal to catalytic proteins known as enzymes.