So what exactly is pigskin leather?

Posted: 25th November 2008 by ElShaddai Edwards in Uncategorized

I recently found a mint copy of the REB Standard Edition with Apocrypha text bound in “pigskin leather” in a “semi-yapp style with gilt blocking and gilt edges, marker ribbons and presentation page”. This is catalog item REB125 (ISBN 0191012459) for those in the know.

I’m familiar with bonded leather, genuine leather, calfskin, goatskin and various other binding styles, but had not seen pigskin before. I think that if you say “pigskin” to most Americans, the first response would be “football!”, even though most footballs are made with cow leather or synthetic materials nowadays.

On first blush, this feels very similar to the stiff “genuine leather” used on my NASB from Foundation Publications. It is not as immediately limp as my Oxford REB Study Bible, but then again it is new and has not been broken in at all. It has a bit more grain than my bonded leather NASB, but lest I’m branded as a leather heretic for comparing the two, I thought I’d dig a little deeper.

The first stop for most Bible leather and binding questions is Mark Bertrand’s “Bible Design and Binding” blog. A search for “pigskin” turned up a few hits, including this one discussing old and new editions of the REB†. In the comments, Mark notes that:

Jerry, the one I have is sewn and bound in Berkshire leather, which according to Cambridge is “a term for pigskin — the material most commonly used in bookbinding when ‘genuine leather’ is the description used.”

For an additional viewpoint, Mechling Bookbindery has the following note in their online glossary of terms:

COWHIDE AND PIGSKIN is from older animals with larger and thicker skins. The skin is skivered (sliced) into thinner layers and embossed with grain pattern and usually finished with a pigment and gloss coating. These skins have a hard finish and are somewhat stiff. Cowhide is an economical alternative to goatskin or calf but not a good choice where soft feel and appearance is important.

Further, Leonard’s Book Restoration notes that:

One of the leathers we use most often at Leonard’s is pigskin, because it’s very strong, but still affordable.  Natural pigskin looks a lot like human skin.  Once it’s dyed purple or red, it really looks much better. [Pigskin is] also known as Berkshire, which is commonly used on Bibles in natural and pressed grains. In many cases, Bibles which say “genuine leather” are covered with pigskin.

So there seems to be general agreement that “pigskin” is “Berkshire leather” is “genuine leather” and that it is the most economical “real leather” option available for book binding. It’s interesting that Cambridge produced this same edition with the term “Berkshire leather” (not calfskin, as Amazon describes) while Oxford used “pigskin leather”. I guess it’s all marketing in the end.

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†For the record, the edition I now have was jointly published by Oxford/Cambridge in 1989 (the ISBN in the first paragraph above is an Oxford number) and resembles the older example discussed on Mark’s blog, though mine is burgundy without any titling on the front and came in a cardboard slipcover. I would also echo the comment to that post that the ISBNs listed on the title page match those of the equivalent REB hardback edition – the ISBN on the slipcover (listed above) is the unique number for the pigskin binding.

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Update: a few photos now included. I apologize for the poor lighting conditions.

  1. Hmmm. Maybe Cambridge thinks “Berkshire” sounds nicer than “pigskin”. I suppose it does, but if it was mine, I wouldn’t care what they called it! I don’t have a “real” leather Bible in my whole collection! 😉

  2. Tim says:

    ElShaddai,

    The whole leather binding debate is just plain wierd in my opinion. The quality of any Bible binding in leather, IMHO, is on a case by case basis. I own a calfskin NRSV, which I thought would be much smoother and limp, but it wasn’t. Other more “genuine leather” editions I have found seem to be better.

    Also, thanks for finding out what is Berkshire leather. I have an NRSV Catholic Readers edition, that was pretty expensive for its size. It said it was made of Berkshire leather, but I could find no info on exactly what that was. Pigskin? Hmmm….

    http://catholicbibles.blogspot.com/2008/08/nrsv-catholic-edition-readers-text.html

  3. @Gary – I agree that “Berkshire” probably has a better marketing spin than “pigskin”, which might be offensive to some. I’m just glad that they dyed it burgundy rather than leaving it a natural human skin color – that would be just too weird!

    @Tim – I wasn’t sure if “Berkshire leather” was like the NET Bible’s “Cromwell leather”, which is later described as bonded leather… FWIW, here is Cambridge’s leather page.

    You make a good point on the overall variability of leathers – I’m coming to the conclusion that unless you pay for a premium cover material, it’s often best to just get the synthetic alternative (or hardcover). Bonded or “genuine leather” or Berkshire or pigskin all seem to be equally stiff – though I’d get one of those if it meant a sewn binding instead of glued.

  4. What, no seam or stripes?

  5. Nope, just plain jane burgundy pigskin… 🙂

  6. I’m having a Bible rebound in tan pigskin now, not because it’s economical but because I like pigskin. A lot of vintage leather goods were made in pigskin (and not just vintage footballs), and I’ve always liked the look. My understanding is that the process used to imprint grain patterns on pigskin contributes to the stiffness of “genuine leather,” but as the description from Leonard’s suggests, not everyone would like the natural pores in the leather.

    Tim’s comment is absolutely right. It’s tempting to say “goatskin is better than calfskin is better than pigskin,” etc., but it’s really a case-by-case thing. I have some vintage Cambridge Bibles is calfskin so rigid it could probably take an edge and substitute for a kitchen knife, and a genuine leather Oxford NRSV I have to keep reminding myself isn’t really “good”, because it certainly feels that way.