Leather has been a favored material for centuries because of its durability, versatility, and sustainability. While trends come and go and have a say in how popular a certain product is at any given time, leather has many natural characteristics that mean it will always remain a favorite material of choice for items such as jackets, belts, shoes, wallets, and bags.
Brands such as Tanner Goods, Saddleback Leather Co., and J.W. Hulme Co. continue to focus on producing only high-quality leather goods, often using traditional manufacturing methods. It is the characteristics of leather and this ongoing dedication to leathercraft that allows some high-end companies such as Saddleback Leather Co. to offer a 100-year warranty on their goods. How many other materials can you think of with 100-year warranties? This gives you an idea of the confidence people have in leather’s durability and longevity.
If you’re thinking about buying something like a bag that might just last longer than you will, it is important to understand the different grades of leather. And to be able to easily identify them. The following section breaks down the grades of leather starting from the highest quality moving down.
Profile of an animal skin showing which parts are used for various leather grades
Full grain is the highest quality leather grade money can buy. The term “full grain” refers to the leather not having any marks or imperfections sanded or buffed out, so full grain leather always includes the entire thickness of the animal skin. Because it is never buffed down, keeping the full natural grain of the skin provides it with its additional material strength and durability.
Quality leathermakers will also tend to use unmarked skin as much as possible for their full grain leather or to pick skins where any distinctive marks are visually appealing. Full grain leather is widely used in only the highest quality shoes, luggage, or furniture. Over time, it tends to develop a very appealing patina, which is the term leather aficionados use to describe the distinctive look of aged high-quality leather.
The second highest grade of leather is known as top grain. It involves splitting the leather into two layers, making it thinner and easier to work for the leather manufacturer. It also has the benefit of allowing the manufacturer to remove any imperfections from the split layer. Top grain is the most common grade of leather used for high-end products such as handbags. Because it gets surface sanded and has a finish applied to it, it also usually has a very smooth feel.
Suede is a very distinctive kind of leather that has a highly textured feel. It is made from split leather where the top-grain rawhide has been removed and the remaining split is then sanded down to give the appropriate thickness and desired feel. Unlike most types of leather, which are made from cow hide, suede manufacturers tend to use goat, lamb, or deerskin as cow leather used for suede has a rougher feel. Despite looking and feeling great, suede isn’t as long lasting as other types of leather because it is thinner and has a porous surface so it’s not very resistant to the weather or liquid spills.
Despite the fancy sounding name, most people probably don’t realize that genuine leather is actually the lowest quality of the real leather grades. Genuine leather has had an artificial grain applied to the surface and is then stained or dyed to give the fake grain a more authentic and appealing look.
Here is the best video I could find on the explanation of different leather types and actually seeing the difference of each one. Photos are a bit hard to find and are not self-explanatory. This is 17-min long clip, so minute 7 is the one about genuine leather.
Bonded leather is a very cheap form of leather that is really just a collection of leftover leather scraps. These scraps are bonded together using polyurethane or latex and then applied on top of fiber sheeting. With bonded leather, there’s no real way of knowing what portion of the material is actually genuine organic leather.
Bonded leather can be used when creating embossed leather, which is leather where the surface has been imprinted with some type of design. This may be to mimic the natural grain of an animal hide or to give bonded, genuine, or synthetic leather the appearance of crocodile or alligator skin for example. Embossed leather is sometimes also referred to as “tooled leather.”
This category covers anything that is essentially artificial or synthetic materials made to look like real leather. There are two main types of faux leather, polyurethane and polyvinyl chloride, which is more commonly referred to as vinyl. Vinyl has been made in the US since the 1940’s and is used in everything from shoes, clothing, car interiors, and upholstery.
Unlike real leather, faux leather isn’t very breathable, so can be uncomfortable worn in direct contact with skin. It can be made to be very flexible and durable however it isn't punctured or tear resistant and doesn’t develop the same patina over time as real leather.
Image courtesy of tannergoods.com. Wickett & Craig tannery.
There’s no substitute for doing a bit of research and getting familiar with the feel of different grades of leather. However, the following provides some easy tips on ways to tell what kind of quality you’re dealing with the next time you pick up a leather bag or go hunting for that perfect leather jacket.
Real leather always smells like leather - the more the material smells like plastic or chemicals the more likely it is to be low quality. There are many treatments or manufacturing processes that can be applied to poor quality leather to make it smoother or more appealing but each of these will tend to either diminish the natural aroma of the leather or give it a really fake, chemical odor.
Check the label – look for a label marked “full grain”. It is also important to find out if the entire product is made with full grain leather. One way that manufacturers often cheat a little here is by referring to the product as being “made with full-grain leather”, even though it may be a mix of leather grades. So be wary that you’re getting what you’re paying for.
Avoid the blues – have a good look at the edge of the leather and look for any blue coloring. If the middle of the leather has a bluish color then it’s a sure sign the tannery didn’t tan the leather properly. This can either be due to not using enough of the tanning liquid or not tanning the leather long enough for the liquids to properly soak through the full thickness of the leather – a process which can take 10 or more hours. Manufacturers may also try to conceal blue coloration by painting the edges of the leather, so look out for a uniform coloring between the leather surface and edges.
Craftsmanship – high quality leather will also generally have corresponding high quality craftsmanship such as stitching. Any imperfections in the stitching, hardware fastenings such as buckles and straps, or the lining can be a good indication of an inferior leather product.
Cost– it’s a little bit of a cliché but when it comes to leather, you really do get what you pay for. Due to the cost of sourcing high quality skins and the cost of a proper tanning process, where a vat of tanning fluids can cost up to $100,000, there is no way around the fact that you need to pay a premium price for high quality leather goods. Once you find a high quality item though, you can be sure that it will last a lifetime, or maybe even longer.
The time I've spent looking into this fueled my interest in leather even more, so there will be more posts about other topics on leather. I think next time I'll dive into the American leather tanneries.