Ostrich leather
Ostrich leather is the result of tanning skins taken from African ostriches
The Ostrich is one or two species of large flightless birds native to Africa, the only living member of the genus Struthio. Some analyses indicate that the Somali Ostrich may be better considered a full species apart from the Common Ostrich, but most taxonomists consider it to be a...

 farmed for their feathers, skin and meat. The leather is distinctive for its pattern of bumps or vacant quill follicles, ranged across a smooth field in varying densities. It requires an intricate, specialised and expensive production process making it costly as well as beautiful.

Although the first commercial farming began in South Africa
South Africa
The Republic of South Africa is a country in southern Africa. Located at the southern tip of Africa, it is divided into nine provinces, with of coastline on the Atlantic and Indian oceans...

 in 1850, the industry collapsed after World War I
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

 and the drop in demand for the feathers for fashionable hats and military uniforms. Other products were marketed, with each success battered by world events and droughts until now, when ostrich skin is globally available and seen as a luxury item in high-end demand.

Leather came late in the story of ostrich farming but after a tannery was set up onsite, it went on to make an impact in European haute couture
Haute couture
Haute couture refers to the creation of exclusive custom-fitted clothing. Haute couture is made to order for a specific customer, and it is usually made from high-quality, expensive fabric and sewn with extreme attention to detail and finished by the most experienced and capable seamstresses,...

 and in the U.S. for cowboy boots becoming widespread during the 1970s. Demand peaked in the 1980s. Availability was artificially limited when ostrich leather was subject to a cartel monopoly through trade sanctions, and single export and distribution channels until the end of apartheid in 1993. After that and other factors, the South African government began to export stock allowing other countries to have their own ranches. Although wider production resulted in competition and lower prices, Klein Karoo Group remains the leading global producer.

There were estimated to be just under 500,000 commercially-bred ostriches in the world in 2003, with around 350,000 of these in South Africa. Ostrich leather is regarded as an exotic leather product alongside crocodile, snake, lizard, camel
A camel is an even-toed ungulate within the genus Camelus, bearing distinctive fatty deposits known as humps on its back. There are two species of camels: the dromedary or Arabian camel has a single hump, and the bactrian has two humps. Dromedaries are native to the dry desert areas of West Asia,...

, emu
The Emu Dromaius novaehollandiae) is the largest bird native to Australia and the only extant member of the genus Dromaius. It is the second-largest extant bird in the world by height, after its ratite relative, the ostrich. There are three subspecies of Emus in Australia...

 among others. Ostrich skins are the largest in terms of volumes traded in the global exotic skins market.

The premium strain of ostrich is the "African Black," which originated on the ranches of South Africa through various forms of selective breeding.

General description

Ostrich leather is unmistakable in its appearance; No other material looks similar to it. It is characterized by raised points that are localized to the center of the hide. The portion with these bumps is called the "crown". It's actually the back of the ostrich where the animal's neck meets its body. The bumps are quill
A quill pen is a writing implement made from a flight feather of a large bird. Quills were used for writing with ink before the invention of the dip pen, metal-nibbed pens, the fountain pen, and, eventually, the ballpoint pen...

Hair follicle
A hair follicle is a skin organ that produces hair. Hair production occurs in phases, including a growth phase , and cessation phase , and a rest phase . Stem cells are principally responsible for the production of hair....

 where a feather used to reside. On the left and right side of the diamond shaped crown the skin is quite smooth. In fact, only about 1/3 of the whole skin has quill bumps. Since the crown is the most sought after portion and since it constitutes such a small area of the skin, "full quill" ostrich products are considerably dearer when compared to bovine leather. This, along with the fact that it is one of the strongest commercial leathers, leads ostrich leather to be seen as a luxury item.


The commercial farming of ostrich
The Ostrich is one or two species of large flightless birds native to Africa, the only living member of the genus Struthio. Some analyses indicate that the Somali Ostrich may be better considered a full species apart from the Common Ostrich, but most taxonomists consider it to be a...

es first began in the 1850s when pioneering farmers located in Oudtshoorn
Oudtshoorn, Western Cape
Oudtshoorn is a town in the Western Cape province in South Africa. With 80,336 inhabitants it is the largest town in the Little Karoo region...

, South Africa, saw great economic potential in harvesting ostrich feathers. Horse-drawn carriages made large, dramatic hats fashionable. Ostrich feathers are some of the most intricate and grandiose in the world so it only made sense to use them in this new rage. During this period of the late 19th and early 20th century, South African ostrich farmers made a fortune. However, the good times came to an end. Henry Ford
Henry Ford
Henry Ford was an American industrialist, the founder of the Ford Motor Company, and sponsor of the development of the assembly line technique of mass production. His introduction of the Model T automobile revolutionized transportation and American industry...

 began to mass-produce the automobile which made large stylish hats for women virtually obsolete. The onset of World War I
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

 put the final nail in the coffin of the ostrich feather industry. The same barons who were making a fortune soon found themselves on the verge of poverty. The future of the ostrich industry looked very grim indeed.

Klein Karoo cooperative

Over the next 50 years the entire industry bottomed out and maintained a minimal presence in the world. This status quo would not last, however. In 1945 the Klein Karoo region near Oudtshoorn set up a cooperative of farmers and speculators ("KKLK") who would work together to rebuild the ostrich industry. Eventually the demand for ostrich meat locally grew to a point where an abattoir was needed. In 1963/64 the world's first ostrich abattoir was erected in Klein Karoo by the KKLK to supply dried and fresh ostrich meat locally.The marketing of ostrich skin started in 1969/1970 when a leather tannery
Tanning is the making of leather from the skins of animals which does not easily decompose. Traditionally, tanning used tannin, an acidic chemical compound from which the tanning process draws its name . Coloring may occur during tanning...

 was built near the abattoir. Prior to this, there is very little known about the tanning process of ostrich skin. Most likely, ostrich skins were sent from the abattoir to tanneries in England
England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Scotland to the north and Wales to the west; the Irish Sea is to the north west, the Celtic Sea to the south west, with the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south separating it from continental...

 and then sold to fashion houses. It appears that a group of South African entrepreneurs set out earlier in the 1960s in search of ways to tan ostrich skin. “I will give anything to see ostrich skins used,” said Gerhard Olivier. With Hannes Louw, Jurgens Schoeman and the tanner Johan Wilken, he traveled abroad for the first time in search of people who could tan ostrich leather. They came across Arnold and Dianne de Jager, founders of a tannery in London, who offered to train a tanner for Klein Karoo. In 1970, the first ostrich skin tannery opened in Klein Karoo.


Ostrich leather was instantly popular in high fashion throughout Europe and the United States where it was used for cowboy boots. Notably, during the 1980s, demand was extremely high in the United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

. During this period, apartheid and other political turmoil caused some countries, the United States included, to put pressure on South Africa in the form of trade sanctions. It was hard for ostrich leather to make it into the States, but it did. However, it came at a cost and the ostrich leather purveyors, brothers John G. Mahler and Wilfred Mahler of Dallas, TX
Texas is the second largest U.S. state by both area and population, and the largest state by area in the contiguous United States.The name, based on the Caddo word "Tejas" meaning "friends" or "allies", was applied by the Spanish to the Caddo themselves and to the region of their settlement in...

, were the only importers of ostrich skin for many years. Just like the single channel KKLK, who had an iron grip on the export
The term export is derived from the conceptual meaning as to ship the goods and services out of the port of a country. The seller of such goods and services is referred to as an "exporter" who is based in the country of export whereas the overseas based buyer is referred to as an "importer"...

ation of the only viable ostrich skins, the Mahlers were able to control not only prices but also who got skins in the United States and how many they were allowed. Their control was so absolute that some bootmakers would be reprimanded by John if they sold his skins to other bootmakers. The entire arrangement has been compared to the DeBeers diamond cartel
A cartel is a formal agreement among competing firms. It is a formal organization of producers and manufacturers that agree to fix prices, marketing, and production. Cartels usually occur in an oligopolistic industry, where there is a small number of sellers and usually involve homogeneous products...


In 1993 apartheid in South Africa ended. This event, combined with the fact that several droughts in Klein Karoo severely crippled the ostrich industry, forced the South African government to open up the exportation of ostrich stock. This allowed neighboring countries and even the U.S. to import and begin raising ostriches on their own. This effectively ended the strong monopoly
A monopoly exists when a specific person or enterprise is the only supplier of a particular commodity...

 enjoyed by South Africa and the KKLK. It also ended the Mahler's monopoly in the United States. More suppliers began to open up in the U.S. and, with less trade restrictions, were able to supply ostrich leather at lower prices. Now there are several ostrich ranches and tanneries in the U.S., but with a 150-year head start
Head start (positioning)
In positioning, a head start is a start in advance of the starting position of others in competition, or simply toward the finish line or desired outcome...

 Klein Karoo Group is still considered the industry leader, and South Africa the centre of ostrich leather production.

The leather

Like other exotic
Exotic can mean:*In mathematics:**Exotic R4 - differentiable manifold homeomorphic but not diffeomorphic to the Euclidean space R4**Exotic sphere - differentiable manifold homeomorphic but not diffeomorphic to the ordinary sphere*In physics:...

 skins, ostrich is a small-area skin compared to bovine and horse hides, and is ranked by the follicles per area since they thin out further away from the neck. It is processed consequently in a more particular way to preserve the largest possible area for processing and treatments, and is put through more than 30 stages related to this. Per unit it is comparable to goat and sheep skins and the range of equipment used is about the same. For this reason, the smaller units, smaller batches, subsequent longer tanning times and skills, increase the cost, elevating it to a luxury product.

Chemical measurements must be precise to avoid mistakes and waste to produce a beautiful, finished skin. Skins are tagged, production takes time and quality standards are high. Lime is added, removed and redone after days of processing and expert clipping prevents skins from tangling with each other. Pigmentation is bleached out of the skin, there is tanning and more tanning with mould prevention along the way. A well-finished hide necessarily receives high-quality colours and finishing dyes to industry and market standards.


The average size of a prepared ostrich skin which can be used with success in most applications is around 16 square feet (1.5 m²). The size and thickness of the skin, as well as follicle development is influenced by maturity of development of the birds at the time of slaughter.. Currently this is variable depending on production methods.


The production process is tabulated in three stages: raw, crust, and finished product. At the first stage, the raw materials are pre-soaked, then cleaned, fleshed and picked over several times, trimmed, weighed chrome-tanned
Leather is a durable and flexible material created via the tanning of putrescible animal rawhide and skin, primarily cattlehide. It can be produced through different manufacturing processes, ranging from cottage industry to heavy industry.-Forms:...

 using chromium sulfate
Chromium sulfate
Chromium sulfate usually refers to the inorganic compound with the formula Cr23 • 12. This consists of the hydrated sulfate salt of the metal aquo complex with the formula [Cr6]3+, which is responsible for the purple color of this salt...

s and other chromium salts; and so on, involving 15 steps the last being the "wet blue" product where it is wrung and set out.

The second, or crust stage involves 10 steps, with side trimming and finer cutting, dyeing and drying to produce "crust" leather product. This when it is measured, after drying. The third stage of "finishing" ostrich leather begins with conditioning to soften it, staking, and various other applications making 11 steps including grading, measuring and packing.

Because it is expensive to manufacture all three processes, countries that produce ostrich skins on a smaller scale, export them at the "raw" and "crust" stages. South Africa is an important processor of finished skins for the main leather manufacturers in Japan
Japan is an island nation in East Asia. Located in the Pacific Ocean, it lies to the east of the Sea of Japan, China, North Korea, South Korea and Russia, stretching from the Sea of Okhotsk in the north to the East China Sea and Taiwan in the south...

. Other African countries engaged in ostrich skin processing are Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe is a landlocked country located in the southern part of the African continent, between the Zambezi and Limpopo rivers. It is bordered by South Africa to the south, Botswana to the southwest, Zambia and a tip of Namibia to the northwest and Mozambique to the east. Zimbabwe has three...

, Namibia
Namibia, officially the Republic of Namibia , is a country in southern Africa whose western border is the Atlantic Ocean. It shares land borders with Angola and Zambia to the north, Botswana to the east and South Africa to the south and east. It gained independence from South Africa on 21 March...

, Botswana
Botswana, officially the Republic of Botswana , is a landlocked country located in Southern Africa. The citizens are referred to as "Batswana" . Formerly the British protectorate of Bechuanaland, Botswana adopted its new name after becoming independent within the Commonwealth on 30 September 1966...

. Botswana markets directly to South African tanneries.

South African tanneries receives about 200,000 skins a year from the ostrich abattoirs of the region and from elsewhere in the world it receives around 15, 000 skins. South African tanneries export around 90% of its finished leather to manufacturers in Europe and East Asia
East Asia
East Asia or Eastern Asia is a subregion of Asia that can be defined in either geographical or cultural terms...

 where it is made into gloves, wallets, hand bags, shoes, luggage, upholstery and sports goods. The remaining 10% goes to South African manufacturers of the same range of items.


Ostrich skins, like crocodile skins, are graded by the centimetre as they are sold in small measurements.

Grading is required to set producer payment as well as finished leather prices.
  • Finished Skins: Tannery for buyer
  • Graded Crust: Tannery to pay farmer or buyer purchasing crust skins
  • Graded Green: Tannery to pay farmer or trader
  • Graded Green: Trader to pay farmer

Note: 1 and 2 use the same standards.

Scars and blemishes currently form the basis for grading with further penalties for poorly-developed follicles and skins deemed too small. Definitions of acceptable follicle size and style are vague and often simply a subjective opinion of the tanner or buyer. A defect can be such things as a hole, scratch, loose scab, a healed wound or bacterial damage. The World Ostrich Association has a document with full definitions of defects for each grade.

The World Ostrich Association also have a document entitled Factors Influencing Skin Quality that can be accessed from the Association's industry standards menu.


Traditionally, fashion has driven the demand for ostrich leather. Fashion houses successfully used ostrich leather in handbags for many years. Most designer brands have at least one purse made with ostrich leather. Footwear is another way in which designers showcase the material. But, by far the most widely used application is for ostrich leather boots. Just about every bootmaker uses ostrich and the demand for ostrich boots is higher than any other ostrich leather product. Belts are another major accessory that utilize ostrich leather (most ostrich boots are purchased with a matching ostrich belt). Of course there are other uses for ostrich leather notably shoes, wallets and jackets. The cost for most items is usually between $500 to $5000; handbags and jackets are highest priced due to the sheer amount of leather used.

Designer handbags in ostrich leather are extremely popular as many luxury designers such as Prada
Prada S.p.A. is an Italian fashion label specializing in luxury goods for men and women , founded by Mario Prada.-Foundations:...

, Hermès
Hermès International S.A., or simply Hermès is a French high fashion house established in 1837, today specializing in leather, lifestyle accessories, perfumery, luxury goods, and ready-to-wear...

, Smythson
Frank Smythson Ltd., more simply known as Smythson, of Bond Street is a British manufacturer of luxury stationery, leather goods, diaries, and fashion products based in London, England. Smythson opened his first shop on 29 September 1887 at 133, New Bond Street, London. The current flagship store...

, Bottega Veneta
Bottega Veneta
Bottega Veneta is an Italian luxury goods house best known for its leather goods. Founded in 1966, it was purchased in 2001 by Gucci Group, now a part of the French multinational group PPR. Bottega Veneta is headquartered in Vicenza, in the Veneto region of northeastern Italy.- History :Bottega...

 and Gucci
The House of Gucci, better known simply as Gucci , is an Italian fashion and leather goods label, part of the Gucci Group, which is owned by French company PPR...

, continue to make fashion statements with their wares made of exotic skins. Louis Vuitton
Louis Vuitton
Louis Vuitton Malletier – commonly referred to as Louis Vuitton , or shortened to LV – is a French fashion house founded in 1854 by Louis Vuitton. The label is well known for its LV monogram, which is featured on most products, ranging from luxury trunks and leather goods to ready-to-wear, shoes,...

 has also popularized the use of ostrich skins, especially part of their runway collections. In 2006, the classic Louis Vuitton Keepall 50 special ordered in an ostrich skin was $10,800. Although such items are expensive, women seek them out because they are simply beautiful and different. It is quite easy to recognize an ostrich handbag.

Different geographic regions have different demands for ostrich leather. For instance, Japan has an especially strong market for ladies's handbags while the southern United States has many consumers of ostrich boots.

Extended applications

Ostrich leather has also made a name for itself within the street
Street culture
Street culture may refer to:* Street market* Children's street culture* Street carnival* Street identity* Cafe culture*Several topics pertaining to outdoors youth subculture or counterculture of urban centers. These can include street art, street dance, street sports and hip-hop culture....

 and skate cultures, as it has been featured on several skate shoes; most notably the Nike Dunk Low Pro SB "Ostrich."

Aside from fashion designers, the automotive industry is a heavy user of ostrich leather. Car seats, dashboards, motorcycle seats, and door panels can all be covered or accented with ostrich leather. Most after market car and motorcycle shops can alter seats by applying ostrich leather as seat inserts. Many luxury car manufacturers offer ostrich leather seats from the factory. This practice is especially popular in European countries.

During the 2008 - 2010 ostrich leather started to be used for sporting footwear. Well-known Mexican
The United Mexican States , commonly known as Mexico , is a federal constitutional republic in North America. It is bordered on the north by the United States; on the south and west by the Pacific Ocean; on the southeast by Guatemala, Belize, and the Caribbean Sea; and on the east by the Gulf of...

 soccer brands such as Pirma
Pirma is a Mexican sports apparel manufacturer. It began in 1990 in Mexico and has become an almost worldwide company. It sells all kind of clothing apparel from: football, basketball, athletics, Boxing, women's apparel, and urban clothing...

 have adopted new range of ostrich leather soccer boots launched during the 2010 FIFA World Cup
FIFA World Cup
The FIFA World Cup, often simply the World Cup, is an international association football competition contested by the senior men's national teams of the members of Fédération Internationale de Football Association , the sport's global governing body...

in South Africa ..

External links

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