Working with exotic hides

Exotic hides offer high-end options for customers looking for something different.

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If you are accustomed to working with fabrics, vinyl or good, old cowhide, exotic hides may seem intimidating from both a technical and a logistical standpoint. First of all, exotics are expensive. Second, assembling a network of reputable suppliers can be tricky. Third, some exotic hides, like stingray, have attributes that can drive new-to-exotics upholsterers crazy.

“I get calls if the upholsterer hasn’t worked with stingray before,” chuckles Henry Slaughter, owner of Ostrich Market (an exotic hides supplier) and Alligator Jake’s (maker of finished products) in Melbourne, Fla. “He’s going to break needles; he’s going to be cussing at it.”

For all the quirks and challenges exotic hides present, many upholsterers find working with them creatively and financially rewarding. Here is a quick-and-dirty guide to what you need to know about exotic hides, from what's available to how to work with them.

The real deal

Customers who crave unusual upholstery can choose from a menagerie of available hides, including alligator, ostrich, shark, stingray, snake, lizard, eel, crocodile, caiman, python (prohibited for sale in California since 1970, so West Coast upholsterers take heed), elephant, zebra, bison, kangaroo, wildebeest and hippo. Each exotic hide has its own look, feel, history and sometimes-surprising characteristics.

“Hippo is the only skin that I buy that is naturally suede,” says Dan Ballard, owner of Bitchn Stitchn Inc. in Lakewood, Colo. “There’s not a lot of hair on them; they’re mostly a bald animal. The natural surface is suede.” Hippo hides are often festooned with scars.

Jeremiah Kapp of Rojé Leather describes hippo as a little-known niche hide suitable for someone who “wants a story” to go along with their upholstery. Each year, there are more deaths caused by hippos than by lions.

For the customer who is more interested in tradition and texture, ostrich might be the way to go. More affordable now than in past decades due to the development of large ostrich ranches in South Africa and elsewhere, ostrich has long been a standard for motorcycle seats, cowboy boots and high-end car interiors.

“Ostrich has just the most luxurious feel,” Slaughter says. “You want to pet it when you get it.”

When it comes to status-symbol skins, Slaughter argues that alligator is “the number one skin in the world, always has been and always will be,” whether the application is a high-end handbag or a wicked-sweet motorcycle seat.

Sometimes an upholsterer who works with exotics will get customers with a very specific—and unusual—idea of what they want. About 15 years ago, Kim Buckminster of Buckminster Upholstery in Falls City, Neb., got an order for a set of custom barstools covered with springbok hide.

Though the hides were colorful, with stripes and hues ranging from palomino tan to dark reddish-brown, they also featured bristly, mohawk-like tufts that stuck up about three inches.

“They were strange-looking chairs,” Buckminster says. “The customer just had it in her mind that she wanted something unique.”

Dremels and dinosaur hide

Most exotic hides, including ostrich, elephant and sharkskin, are straightforward to work with and maintain. They are as versatile as cowhide leather and, once used in an upholstery application, require only the occasional massage with leather conditioner. Stingray, caiman and hair-on hides are the somewhat fussy exceptions.

Stingray in particular is widely regarded as a difficult exotic hide to work with because of its hard surface.

“They’ve got this crusty little finish on the outside,” says Johann Merkhofer of Coachtrim, LLC in Danbury, Conn. "It’s tough on sewing machine needles.”

“Sewing with stingray can be a real challenge,” Kapp confirms. “A lot of people think they should use a diamond-tip needle when in actuality you should use a titanium needle.” His other recommendation is to use a Dremel tool on the top surface of the skin, especially in areas that are bumpy, to create a stitching groove so that your lines will actually go straight.

Caiman hide—from a South American crocodilian that is much cheaper than alligator, and thus very popular—can also be hard to sew, particularly if you purchase a large hide. As the animal gets bigger, the skin “tends to be more primitive in the sense that it becomes like dinosaur skin,” Kapp says. “It’s almost impossible to get anything over 17 inches where you can still sew through it. It tends to get really, really tough.” He advises avoiding using caiman skins over 16 inches wide.

On the mammalian end of the exotic-hides spectrum, hair-on hides work well for decorative upholstered items. Curt Gillock of Two Fools Leather Goods in North Carolina often uses hair-on hides in his handcrafted Southwest-style furniture and historical-reenactment accessories. He uses cowhide for the most part, but he has also worked with buffalo, zebra, skunk, opossum and squirrel.

“Hair-on hide is usually softer, so it sews better,” he says. "Sometimes you’ve got to pattern-match your pieces, but that’s really not that much trouble.

“Buffalo is pretty neat. It’s a lot like cow but with thicker and longer hair, which does make it harder to work with, especially if you’re going to sew it, he says. "You’ve got to get the grain of the hair running the right way or it’s going to feel funny.”

Supply and demand

When sourcing exotic hides, look for well-established suppliers that state their compliance with CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna) regulations to ensure that you are in the clear legally and to help ensure species conservation.

Exotic hide suppliers tend to specialize in a species or a cluster of species. Merkhofer has developed relationships with other upholstery shops across the country. If he doesn’t know where to source a particular exotic hide, he can call around and get advice.

Start off on the right foot with an exotic-hide supplier by avoiding this pet peeve: requesting a swatch of every color in every species.

“Have your desired color range narrowed down,” Kapp says. He points out that no supplier wants to cut into an exotic hide worth several hundred dollars for the sake of a tiny swatch. He also advises waiting until you have a confirmed project with a deposit before you call and ask a lot of questions. You will get more accurate price information that way because prices fluctuate from week to week depending upon demand, Kapp says.

Color availability fluctuates, too.

“You don’t really have sample cards for the exotics,” Merkhofer says. “You can’t show a customer a sample card where you can choose a particular color. You have to say, if you want it in a red range, we’ll see what’s available in that range.”

The “in” skin

The country’s economic woes are reflected to a certain extent in the current trends in exotic hides. The “in” material lately is stingray, in all colors.

“Stingray is durable and affordable,” Slaughter says. “It’s the least-expensive of the exotic leathers. We sold less alligator this year than ever before because of the economy. But we sold more caiman this year than we sold in the past three years combined because it's cheap and it looks like alligator.”

Inlays are a big trend, according to Kapp, since you don’t have to spend as much on the material. Like Slaughter, he reported selling a lot of stingray (including some stingray printed in tiger stripes to commemorate the Year of the Tiger).

Exotic hide trends for 2011 and beyond will include metallics, antiqued and varnished looks, and—for budget-minded customers—cowhides and vinyls embossed to resemble exotic hides.

The primary customer base for exotic hide upholstery remains high-end clients, who are less likely to be affected by the vagaries of the economy. Kapp reports that “very luxe” customers overseas are having crocodile skins injected with real platinum and gold. Be proactive about appealing to high-end clients by expanding your service range and developing new products, like exotic-hide-accented furniture and accessories.

Merkhofer recently made a company vice president a small python handbag as a gift. “She showed it around and all of a sudden there were 10 other people that wanted one.”

Upselling exotic hides is somewhat difficult because of their cost, but it is possible. Tony Mazzarella, owner and president of Mac’s Custom Upholstery in Seattle, Wash., begins with a potential client by asking about budget.

“From there we start showing them different projects and materials,” he says. “If their wallet is full, they’ll go for it.” Mazzarella also sells based on his eyes and his gut. “If I see them coming in on a bike that’s super-tricked-out, I can throw out, ‘Hey do you want to do something exotic?’ It just depends on their ride.”

Shelby Gonzalez is a freelance writer who works with trade and consumer publications. She welcomes inquiries at shelbygonzalez@gmail.com.

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