Australia may once have ridden on the sheep’s back, but it’s a New Zealand researcher who has discovered the secret of making sheep leather as strong as cowhide.

Sheep-skin leather is only half as strong as cow-hide leather, lowering its value and making it unsuitable for footwear.

Richard Haverkamp from Massey University recently used the Australian Synchrotron to investigate the nano-scale basis for the difference in strength between cow and sheep leather. He used small angle x-ray scattering (SAXS), a technique that can reveal the three-dimensional shape of proteins such as the cross-linked collagen fibres that make up the bulk of leather and determine its physical properties.

Richard and his colleagues used their findings to develop a processing strategy for making stronger sheep leather.

If this process were used to convert just half of Australia’s annual lamb-skin production to leather suitable for footwear, it could potentially add $118 million a year to the value of Australian sheep products. A similar calculation applied to the NZ case puts the potential value for the NZ sheep industry at NZ$159 million a year.

Richard says New Zealand’s preferred access to the Australian Synchrotron – as one of the facility’s foundation investor groups – is what made the discovery possible. Using conventional laboratory equipment would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and still not given the high-resolution details needed for this discovery.


Above (L-R): Optical image of sheep leather in cross-section (approx. 2.2 mm thick), with SAXS diffraction pattern from grain-corium boundary region