Ostrich leather is recognisable by the distinct 'bumps' of the feather follicles.
South African ostrich leather, with its distinct textured pattern of feather follicles, has a reputation of quality, durability and beauty. For example, even though it is thinner than cowhide, it is certainly stronger. Ostriches in South Africa are produced in sustainable farming systems and sourced from certified ostrich abattoirs. Ostrich skins are tanned to produce soft and strong leather. Ostrich leather can be dyed in up to 300 colours and used in a variety of applications from hipflasks to handbags.
Ostrich Leather Quality
The market considers the best ostrich hides from birds that are at least 12 months old, but often production systems require that animals be processed earlier to allow for optimum meat quality. In South Africa, ostriches are processed at 10 - 12 months of age. Feathers are removed before the bird’s carcass is skinned. Skin size, skin damage and feather follicle development determine the price of ostrich leather. Skins with a size of 130 - 140 dm2 may reach the highest price per dm2 while smaller skins with damage obtain lower prices.
The ideal skin size is also dependant on the final product. Cobus Brink, section head: dye and finishing of Mosstrich abattoir explains: ‘For the making of boots, it is important to have a skin with identical sides to allow for mirror images of the boot patterns to be cut. If you have damage on one side of the skin, the manufacturer will lose a lot of skin and therefore value’. Other quality aspects of ostrich skins are the absence of skin damage and the size and shape of the nodules of the feather follicles. Skin damage in the crown area, the diamond-shaped area on the back of the ostrich is especially critical.
Skin size and follicle development are determined by the bird’s age and weight. Both aspects generally improve with age and increase in weight. Skin damage can be caused by kicking, fighting and scratches, while insect bites, sunburn and feather pecking also damage ostrich skins. The ideal slaughter weight is from 10 months and when the feathers are ripe but if birds become too old, they reach sexual maturity, which results in fighting with subsequent skin damage.
The shape of the follicle also generally improves with age as the skin becomes thicker. Tube-like, open follicles are indicative of ‘green’ feathers or feathers that were not yet ripe and most probably a young bird.
Processing of Ostrich Leather
After tanning, ostrich leather is coloured by using a 'transparent' dye.
Once the skin has been sourced, the leather is tanned. Raw ostrich hide is grey-white in colour but after the tanning process, it becomes white to very light blue. During the tanning process, leather is cleaned, softened and preserved. Huge rotating tanks are used in the tanning process, which can take 8 to 10 weeks. Thereafter, the leather is polished, dyed and finished off to the client’s specification.
During the colouring process, a ‘transparent’ dye is applied, allowing the follicles and leather’s natural grain to shine through. The whole ostrich skin is of an irregular shape with only about 25% of the skin, mainly on the back, covered in the distinct and recognisable texture of ostrich skin.
This area with its pattern of feather follicles, is the prized portion of the skin, and used for the manufacture of the most luxurious items, often combining multiple skins to ensure an even-textured pattern and end-product. The rest of the ostrich skin, usually the breast and belly area, is bare or have small follicles.
Ostrich Leather Products
Ostrich leather products can include leather clothing items, such as shoes and jackets, accessories such as handbags and other items including purses, belts, cosmetic containers. Due to the strength of ostrich leather, it has practical applications in the motoring, yacht and furniture industries. According to Arno Albertyn, executive director: leather of Klein Karoo International in Oudtshoorn, the most popular ostrich leather items in terms of volume are American and Mexican ‘Western wear’ and specifically ‘cowboy’ boots. In terms of value, ostrich leather handbags take the top spot.
Ostrich leather and meat is Halaal, so are suitable for consumers adhering to the Islam religion. Both Klein Karoo International and Mosstrich abattoirs are Halaal certified. The only necessity to export ostrich leather products from South Africa is a certificate of origin.