“Leather” doesn’t really mean what you think it means, why does it matter, and why should you care?
Written by Thomas Brierton
Written by Thomas Brierton
Leather is used in various applications across numerous industries and with the current focus on quality and sustainability, it’s no wonder leather is the preferred material for manufacturers. Bryer Leather strives to be at the forefront of the maker-movement, promoting hand-made goods that will last for generations. Anyone looking to purchase a leather product in the near future should be aware of exactly what they are paying for, that is what I’m here for.
Grade is a term used to describe the quality of the hide being used for a specific product. For example: hides that have scars and holes are considered low grades, while hides with a cleaner surface are considered high grade. Leather descriptions commonly misguide consumers by using a generic term like "genuine leather", which could describe a product made with Full-Grain Leather but can also be used to describe Bonded Leather (both defined below).
Leather can be very thick, depending on the animals’ age, its size and species. Leather thickness can vary greatly within a species, with some having thicker skins than others, and even on one individual animal, some body parts have thicker skin compared to other body parts. Leather has to be thinned for the end product to feel uniform; this thinning process is called Splitting. Depending on the application of the leather, different thicknesses are utilized. Thickness is measured in weight, and can range from one to even twelve ounces, with twelve being the thickest. As a reference, I usually use 4-5oz leather for my bags.
You need to get familiar with the different grades of leather, how they differ from each other and how they are advertised to the public. With all the options currently available, it’s easy to realize just how confusing and misguiding these labels can be. The information below doesn’t contain ALL the different types of leathers, but it’s a great start and will detail the different quality grades you should know before giving your money away.
Starting at the very top, we find Full-Grain Leather, which is the whole skin from surface to end, it’s thick and very durable; it’s also usually the most expensive type of leather. Full-Grain Leather includes the entire thickness of the skin and refers to the lack of bonding agents and fillers throughout the finishing process, and hasn’t been sanded or ‘buffed’ (process that removes marks and imperfections). While buffing the leather to make it smooth and more uniform is visually appealing to some (and very convenient when it comes to mass-production), keeping the original grain allows for added strength and durability in the leather.
The highest quality furniture, luggage and footwear often use Full-Grain Leather, which typically develops a beautiful patina over time.
Next in line we find Top-Grain Leather, it’s made when you take Full-Grain Leather and split it, to create a top grain and a split grain. Top-Grain leather is full grain that has been shaved down, it has had the split layer, containing all the natural imperfections, stripped away, thinning the leather and usually making it easier to work with. This is the most common type of leather used in high-end products and is what you’ll likely find at a luxury handbag store when shopping.
Top-Grain Leather has had its surface sanded and a finish applied, giving it a very smooth feel. Although the process takes away the natural imperfections and overall breathability of the leather, it also creates a seal that prevent stains that would otherwise get absorbed by Full-Grain Leather.
Nubuck is commonly confused with its cousin, Suede, but they are very different. Suede is the underside of Split Leather, while Nubuck is a finishing, or process, by which the leather is treated. Nubuck is Full-Grain Leather that is sanded with something rough, creating a ‘furry’ surface. You can tell the difference between Nubuck and Suede by looking for the skin texture of the animal. Nubuck will still clearly show the Grain lines from the skin while Suede will have a more uniform finish.
Remember how Full-Grain Leather is split to create Top-Grain Leather? The leftover pieces are called Split-Grain Leather. If you use the bottom piece, you get "Split Suede", if you use the Top-Grain Leather upside down (to reveal the remaining flesh under the skin), then you get what is known as true Suede.
Suede tends to have a very short nap, giving the leather its signature velvety feel while maintaining the thickness thus reducing the chance for the material to warp or stretch over time.
Suede has the signature napped surface from the underside of the skin, this is what gives the material its signature textured feel. Due to the fact that cow leather usually has a rougher feel, lamb, goat, calf, and even deer hides are commonly used instead.
Suede is thinner and porous, making it easy to stain and overstretch; when buying a Suede product make sure you also invest in a good leather sealer that will make the material water-resistant and will protect your purchase in the long run.
CORRECTED-GRAIN or “GENUINE LEATHER”
A lot of the leather on the market these days is Corrected-Grain Leather or Genuine-Leather, this is leather that was stripped off its natural grain (either by sanding or buffing) and has had an artificial grain applied to the surface that is then sealed off and altered to match the bonding agents, finally it’s embossed with various grain characteristics to hide natural flaws. In other words, manufacturers take Split-Leather and create a fake surface for it. "Patent Leather" contains PVC that is used to create the shiny, reflective, smooth and colorful leather so very common in women's products.
The leather-like pattern was likely impressed into the surface with a heavy machine and then sprayed with leather stain or dye to give the fake grain a more natural appearance. If you are looking for a high-quality leather product, AVOID this at all costs. This type of leather, and the way it’s presented to the public, is what made me finally sit down and write this post.
The ultimate disgrace in ‘leather’ products (I’m not even sure why they call it ‘leather’ at this point) is Bonded Leather. This is made up of, get ready, leftover scrap pieces of leather that are shredded to a pulp. These shreds are then bonded together using polyurethane or latex on top of a fiber sheet, in other words it is made up of (typically) less than 20% actual leather and this leather is only present on the back. Think of chipboard wood: it is scrap wood soaked in resin, compressed together, and veneered with fake wood grain.
Unfortunately, Bonded Leather is commonly sold as “Genuine Leather”, and there’s no way of telling how much actual leather it contains vs the chemicals, I can guarantee no manufacturer is going to be honest on this ratio. Belts are a big item that is commonly advertised as “100% Leather”, there’s currently no regulation forbidding retailers to advertise bonded leather as such, and these products usually contain between 30%-50% plastic; this is an issue, especially with leather bags, because vinyl can be made to look, feel and even smell like ‘real’ leather, but it ages very differently and tends to fall apart.
If you are in the market for a good leather product, beware of sales people recommending bonded leather as opposed to Full-Grain Leather, stating it’s ‘almost like the real thing’. ITS NOT. At half the price, you are truly getting what you paid for, you’ll be lucky if the item lasts longer than 6, the crap will be peeling off and you’ll quickly realize this bonded ‘leather’ was nothing less than a scam.