Have you read the leather overview? If not, go there first.
Cows: the default source for leather. Why is it so common? Because it’s versatile, so it can be used for a lot of different purposes; because cows are large and thus larger pieces can be cut from their hides; and because we eat a lot of beef, so there are a lot of cow skins out there that need using.
Not all cow leather is alike. As mentioned in the overview, the weights and finishes of cow leather can vary wildly. You can create everything from lining-weight single-ounce calfskin to twelve ounce could-probably-stop-a-bullet leather out of a cow hide.
What you want depends on the purpose to which you’re using it. Lighter weights are suitable for lining wallets and purses and making small items like gloves. Slightly heavier – but still relatively light leather – is used for regular garments like skirts, pants and casual jackets. Heavier leathers are suitable for accessories like belts, saddles and holsters, or protective gear, such as that for motorcycle riders or yes, cowboys.
You can buy cow leather in pretty much any finish imaginable: hair still on, smooth top grain, sueded splits, metallic finish, embossed to look like another animal like snake or ostrich – you name it.
As mentioned in the leather overview, beware of that pseudo-leather creature called “Bonded leather”. It’s the paper mache of leathers. It might work for your project and if so, that’s great – but don’t buy it thinking that it’s the same thing as regular animal hide leather.
Here’s a quick and dirty – very quick, very dirty – guide to what kind of cow leather is suitable for some popular cosplay projects.
For an Emma Peel-esque catsuit, consider calfskin around 2 ounces. It’s lightweight enough to go through your sewing machine easily and it looks fantastic. Lambskin will cost you a lot more and probably not last as long. Pigskin might cost a bit less, but it won’t look as luxuriant. Be prepared to break down your pattern into small pieces for cutting, because calves aren’t as big as cows.
If you’re looking to cosplay Mal Reynolds from Firefly, you want sueded leather, about four ounce weight and a lot of it, because that’s a very full coat, cut into large panels. Prepare to invest in a full hide, which is going to cost you several hundred dollars.
For something that looks and feels a little tougher, consider heavy chap leather. It’s about six ounces per square foot, so you’ll need access to a special machine to sew it (time to learn about your local maker space!), or consider hand-sewing it or gluing it together. Chap leather is very suitable for your barbarian types.
For accessories reminiscent of the Wild West, look at latigo leather. “Latigo” refers to a color and style of finish – very distinctive and very much associated with cowboys and riding the trails.
For big beefy accessories with a distinctly barbarian flair, look for saddle or skirting leather. That stuff is seriously heavy – nine ounces or more – but you’ll get some bullet-proof looking pieces out of it. It’s far too heavy for clothing, but great for braces, greaves and guards. Also consider using hair-on leather for any barbarian-type concepts you’re kicking around.
Because there’s such a huge range in what you can get for cow leather, there’s a huge range in price, too. A side of leather suitable for making chaps can cost up to $200. A veg-tan single shoulder from which you could cut a couple of forearm bracers would cost you about $50. A bag of suede scraps which could be used to embellish a stylish troll’s ensemble might be as little as ten dollars. You’re definitely going to have to shop around and keep your eye out for coupons and sales.
If you’re lucky enough to live near a leather and hide retailer, take advantage of the staff’s knowledge. Talk to them about what you want to do and heed their advice. Also ask about classes and demos that might be on their schedule – they can be a serious life-saver.