In just two years, we've gone from knowing less than the next guy about leather, to visiting Italian tanneries and working closely with craftsmen here in the US. As designers, our responsibility is to understand materials as best we can in order to create the best performing products possible. It's been an education and a journey to say the least, and Wally is a better man – er, wallet – because of it.
The very first Wally was a stick-on leather pocket launched on Kickstarter in January 2013. He crushed his original goal of $12,000 by raising $90,472 – go Wally! For the first two production runs we used a vegetable-tanned cow leather sourced from a tannery in Italy, which Nate (the product designer for Distil Union) was lucky enough to visit!
I should stop here and say that there is an entire world of leather out there, and we've spent the last 2 or so years learning about it along the way! We rely on testing and feedback from actual Wally users, along with consulting with some excellent makers and craftsmen who have been kind enough to talk leather with us.
So after a good year of use and feedback, we began researching chrome-tanned leather as we launched the first Wally Case for iPhone 5. While vegetable-tanned was making most folks happy, we weren't able to get the leather as thin as we wanted to for an even slimmer Wally. Turns out vegetable-tanned leather can rip or tear if cut too thin, whereas chrome-tanned is more pliable. This would give Wally more give, or flexibility to better hold a slightly wider range of cards for people.
We learned that chrome-tanned also wears differently with use, without scratching or marring – though since it's made of cow hides, there's still variation from one part of the hide to another, as well as among hides. We're not alone in thinking this variation is one of leather's more desirable qualities – it's nature folks, and variety is the spice of life! We also learned many Italian tanneries get their cow hides from northern climates (less warm-weather bug bite scars!), and that supposedly an animal's brain is large enough to tan its own hide – the original tanning method, and while grotesque, speaks to the heritage of leather tanning and utility this material has afforded us for centuries.
"A large number of different tanning methods and materials can be used; the choice is ultimately dependent on the end application of the leather. The most commonly used tanning material is chromium." – Wikipedia
Here are some quick qualities of the two leathers we've used:
All other things being equal (colors, cost, our ability to source), you can see that the decision comes down to which leather will be best suited for your product's utility and purpose.
One quality of the chrome-tanned leather we especially liked was its durability and high resistance to wear. It will darken and develop a sheen, or patina, though not as dramatically as the original brown vegetable-tanned leather – which for many Wally backers is by now as dark as the black leather!
And although the leather of Wally's iPhone 5 Case was closer to what we were looking for, we found that it swung a bit too far away from the vegetable-tanned leather everyone had grown to love. Too much flex, and leather can feel artificial. Turns out even genuine leather can stray too far, and even if it displays the qualities you're after, one must weigh the cost. With material quality and user experience topping of our List Of Things That Are Important, we knew our search for the perfect leather wasn't over yet. We kept looking, and we found this:
It was for the new iPhone 5 Wally Stick-Ons that we introduced a chrome-tanned leather sourced from Argentina, which we then used on the iPhone 6 Cases (above) and the Bifold and Sleeve wallets. And with great results! The flex and durability are right on. The leather more quickly relaxes and forms around whatever an individual is carrying, which results in an even slimmer wallet after use. On the Bifold, for example, the leather also conforms around the money clip, so the spine of the wallet develops a slimmer profile. This was a pleasant surprise.
What would a vegetable-tanned Wally Bifold be like? It's an option we'd like to explore, and we'll continue to work with our suppliers and craftsmen, not to mention our friends and family on whom we rely for honest feedback from their beta tests. There could very well be more pleasant surprises awaiting us – and you!
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