Apr 30 , 2018
The quality of leather varies greatly. You have most likely seen different labels on leather items, such as top grain or genuine. These are simply different types of leathers based on their quality. If you want to get the best bang for your buck, you not only need to know where to buy leather, you also need to know how to distinguish between different types. You will need to understand why some materials last longer than others and why a particular leather bag costs thousands, while others cost a fraction of that price.
So, what is the best leather? The best quality leather will depend on these important factors, most notably:
- Type of animal and breed
- Physical location and climate where the animal lived
- Portion of the hide the leather was cut from (see diagram below)
- Layer of the hide that is used (top grain, full grain, split)
- Quality and skill of the processing and tanning
Different breeds of cows will produce different quality hides due to their genetics and environment. Hot climates tend to have insects that bite the animal and leave scars whereas cold climates don’t suffer from pests as much. Certain breeds might have more protective hair or thicker skins due to the weather.
Different portions of the hide also yield different quality leather. For instance, the lower portion, as shown in the diagram above, tends to have looser fibers that make up the hide. The looser fibers sponge and swell when wet. Lower portions of the hide also tend to get marked much easier from insects and scrapes like barbed wire fencing. There are also more wrinkles in the hide around the legs, neck and head. These scars and wrinkles become permanent and are almost impossible to remove in the processing of the leather.
Different layers within the hide also have an enormous impact on quality. Full grain leather and top-grain are the best. See our in depth focus on the grain vs split just a few paragraphs further down to know which portion you are buying.
Finally, knowing exactly how to take a raw hide and process it through tanning and finishing is a sought after skill and will influence the quality of the final product significantly. Italian leather is admired for this very reason – as Italian leather artisans are considered amongst the most skilled in the world.
In general, there are four types of leather. These include Full Grain Leather, Top Grain Leather, Corrected Grain Leather, and Bonded Leather. Take a look at the picture below. See how the fibers run both horizontally and vertically in different parts of the hide.
Buying leather with more horizontal fibers wears out quickly because they can readily pull apart. Vertically running fibers, however, are the strongest. In other words, the higher the number of vertical fibers, the better.
A. Full Grain Leather
Full grain leather comes from the top layer of the hide. It includes all the grain with it – hence the name full grain leather. This type of leather retains the inherent toughness, as well as the imperfections because there are no surface alterations or splitting.
It is the highest quality leather and the only one suitable for saddleback. Thus, it is also the most expensive. Working with this leather material is challenging. It absorbs body oils and develops a patina over time – a characteristic that attributes to its popularity.
B. Top Grain Leather
Top grain is the second highest grade of leather. Usually, to obtain top grain leather, the top layer of skin from blemished hides is split. The surface is sanded to get rid of inherent imperfections. Pigmentation or staining gives the leather an attractive look.
This also makes top grain leather smoother and more flexible than the full grain. Although this type of leather is strong and durable, it tends to stretch permanently over time. It is used to produce suede and nubuck. Most high-end products, such as handbags and jackets, are comprised of top grain leather.
C. Corrected Grain (Bottom Cut/Split) Leather
Corrected grain leather, also known as genuine leather, is produced using the skin layers that remain after the top is split off. Just like the top grain leather, it is also sanded to remove natural imperfections. Usually, the surface is spray painted and embossed with a leather-like pattern to resemble natural appearance. However, the processing alters the inherent breathability of the leather.
D. Bonded Leather
Bonded leather is made up of leftovers of the hide. This includes the dust and shavings. These are bonded together using polyurethane or latex on top of a fiber sheet. It is often spray-painted to look like full or top grain leather. You can’t determine the percentage of natural leather unless the manufacturer chooses to disclose it – which is very unlikely. Bonded leather is the lowest (and the cheapest) grade of leather.
Though there are four basic types of leather, you can find a wide range of options based on the percentage of organic material, durability, and the finishing process.
Aniline Leather: This is the most natural leather with a minimal resistance to soiling. It requires regular upkeep.
Semi-Aniline Leather: Semi-aniline leather consists of a light surface coating with a small amount of pigment. Thus, it is stronger than aniline leather but maintains its natural look. It also exhibits stain resistance to some extent.
Antique Grain Leather: This one is comprised of a unique surface processing that resembles the ragged appearance of conventional leather. It is also called distressed leather.
Chrome-Free Leather: This type of leather uses aldehyde tanning, which, just like vegetable tanning, does not use chromium. Hence it is called chrome-free. Usually, it is used to make infant shoes and automobile accessories.
Chrome Tanned Leather: Most leather manufacturers use chromium salts (chromium sulfates) for the tanning process instead of vegetable tanning. Though chrome tanned leather is thinner and softer than vegetable tanned leather, the process is not considered environmentally friendly.
Corrected Grain Pigmented Leather: Usually, imperfections are removed by abrading the grain surface before applying the coating. A decorative grain pattern is embossed to render a natural look.
Pigmented Leather: A polymer surface coating, containing certain pigments, is applied to produce the desired look and properties. Due to its durability, pigmented leather is often used to make furniture and car upholstery.
Embossed Leather: Embossed leather is imprinted with artificial leatherwork for a certain grain design or pattern.
Finished Split Leather: Usually, the middle or lower section of a hide is used to produce this leather. It is coated with a polymer and embossed to resemble a more natural look.
Good Hand Leather: This is a softer leather. As it feels pleasant to the touch, it is known as good hand leather.
Kidskin Leather: This one is made from the hide of young goats.
Latigo: Latigo is cowhide leather specifically designed for outdoor use. It is usually found in cinches, ties, saddlebacks, and army accouterments.
Nubuck Leather: Nubuck leather is sanded on the grain side to create a velvety appearance. Usually, aniline dyed leather is used to produce nubuck leather.
Oil Tanned Leather: Oil-tanned leather is produced using oils to create a remarkably smooth and flexible finish.
Pebble Grain Leather: The top side of such leather mimics a pattern of small pebbles.
Printed Leather: The printed leather is often stamped with a design or texture to create a unique look.
Pull-Up Leather: Pull-up leather, or oily pull-up leather, stretch over time and provides a unique worn-in effect. It is considered a sign of high quality.
Skirting Leather: This is the leather often used to manufacture saddles and bridles. Skirting leather is made from the sides of cattle hide.
Suede: Suede is the most popular leather with a napped finish. It is used to make jackets, shoes, shirts, purses, and furniture.
Tooling Calf Leather: Tooling calf is a thin, lightweight, vegetable-tanned leather. It is suitable for printing and engraving.
Waxy Hand Leather: Waxy hand leather comes with a grease or wax finish. It is often used to make upholstery, shoes, and handbags.