Do you know what to look for when buying leather?
When shopping for leather goods today, you will discover a surprising degree of variation when it comes to cost and quality, not to mention appearance and feel of products. That is because the term ‘leather’ is now used ubiquitously to describe any product produced with animal hide, from full grain leather to bonded leather. The word ‘leather’ is now more frequently being used to describe products that are only ‘like leather.’ This loose usage of the term has diminished the distinguished nature of the product and has caused confusion and distrust for the average consumer as to the value, worth, and merits that real leather, in the traditional sense, has.
You might think that there are only two main differences of what constitutes leather: real leather and synthetic leather. You would be right in a general sense. Real leather is made with animal hide and synthetic leather is made with textile and plastic. But as with most things, it is more complicated than that. There are five common terms used to describe real leather. When looking at products which use real animal hide, the differences are less obvious but equally important as the difference between simulated and real leather. It behooves the consumer to know these differences so that they can make informed decisions about the product they are purchasing.
The anatomy of a leather hide
The five terms for ‘leather’ you may have seen:
Top Grain Leather
Leather hides can often come with range marks (blemishes on the surface of the skin which are apparent on the hide in the form of scars, insect bite marks, callouses, etc.). When creating Top Grain leather, the uppermost surface where these blemishes are will have been sanded off to produce a uniform look. This processing produces nice-looking leather but the alterations can also make the leather weaker. This type of leather is most frequently found in high-end products like handbags and jackets.
Full Grain Leather
The term ‘full grain’ means that the hide’s surface has not been altered in any way. In other words, all of the top grain remains intact. Range marks and marbling can be visible on the hide and sometimes this is referred to as ‘signs of life.’ Range marks can often be avoided and hand-choosing hides is usually the best way to do this. Full Grain leather is usually considered the strongest and most-durable type of leather and is challenging to craft. When oiled, Full Grain leather becomes supple and can develop the ‘pull up’ effect desired in a distressed appearance. Full Grain leather is the only leather that develops a patina and looks better with age and use. The grain side of Full Grain leather can be used for tooling (embossing) ornate patterns and designs.
Split Grain Leather
Split Grain leather, sometimes called ‘split’ is most commonly known as suede. Only the corium is used and none of the upper grain remains. This produces a soft and pliable leather product which is fuzzy on both sides, but it stretches easily and is not very durable. Used frequently as linings and for soft apparel. It can attract dirt and stains easily.
The tragedy of the term ‘Genuine Leather’ is that it no longer means what it used to mean. ‘Genuine,’ a word that literally means ‘real’ was once used as a mark of quality. The verbiage has unfortunately shifted over the years to become a catchall term. Today it means ‘this product contains real’ (leather) thanks to the abundance of cheap overseas manufactured goods in our stores. Aside from vintage leather goods which still hang onto this label (this is also why this term fools so many people today), what Genuine Leather now frequently means is that you’re getting suede or some composition of suede that has been covered with a top coating of polyurethane (PU) or has been painted to give it a finished look. It will have the distinctive leather smell, but a thick plastic coating on top. With time, the leather will stretch and the PU coating will dry rot, crack and peel off. Obviously this type of leather is not durable but it is highly ubiquitous in many goods today. These are impostors and should be treated as such.
Bonded Leather is at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to ‘real’ leather products. As the name implies, Bonded leather is made from leather scraps, shavings, and leather dust, plus vinyl, plastic, and glue which has been bonded together and embossed to resemble real leather. (Yikes!)
These are big differences!
The kicker is that all of these products get to be called ‘leather’ by manufacturers. This obviously benefits manufacturers of Bonded Leather who get to describe their product as ‘leather,’ while tanneries producing Vegetable Tanned Full Grain Leather are forced to use more words to describe their inherently less complicated product. The bottom line is that consumers must now exercise caution when met with products labeled ‘leather’ if they care about the true nature of the product they are buying.
These little-understood differences between real leather products can create disappointment in people who believe they are getting long-lasting quality at a bargain price. Who doesn’t want that? I fully admit to having felt a rush of joy after the purchase of a ‘genuine leather’ wallet when I was in high school, amazed that I was able to afford a high quality product. It fell apart within a year. And I’m not the only one with this experience. I speak to lots of people who are more than willing to show me their own cheap leather wallets which they purchased at Wal-Mart or similar, fraying at the seams, linings stretched and distorted. They know they bought a cheap wallet, but do they know what made it cheap? The ultimate question is whether this wallet experience will forever taint their impression of the long-touted durability and quality of ‘leather’ as a whole. I worry it will.
The problem with too many types of ‘leather’
Understandably the average person likely has no time to know the differences between these types of leather. The labels used on these products will never explicitly describe that one type is better or worse than another and the names chosen for each type are of no help. It’s ultimately up to the consumer to know the difference. Of course, the goal of this guide is to educate those who are interested, but to also express my dismay at this sad reality. For those of us who deal in quality, durable vegetable-tanned full grain leather, who take the time and care which quality leather production demands, it is disappointing to be met with customers who balk at the price. They just don’t know the true cost of quality leather goods.
On average, people do have a sense that a leather product is costlier due to the nature of processing animal hide, but rarely any knowledge past that. The rise of simulated leather products made from textiles covered in polyurethane and other plastics have only made this worse. Termed ‘leatherette’ and ‘vegan leather’, these products are relying on the long-established reputation of real leather to make them seem higher quality than they really are. In reality, these products fool consumers who are unaccustomed to the qualities of real leather – perhaps because they have never seen, touched, or used real, quality leather goods. Sadly, they end up relying on manufacturers to tell them that these two products are comparable in quality, so why would you pay more? The trouble is that synthetics are (obviously) man-made and inherently of poorer quality simply due to their material composition. Plastic is not leather.
But it is understandable for the average person to prefer simulated leather over real leather because the price is so much more palatable. And I don’t blame the average person for that. Leather can be expensive and sometimes it’s just more convenient to go with the synthetic product. When consumers know and have good reason to choose synthetics, I find no fault. For example, it doesn’t make sense to spend a fortune on something you may not be happy with in the future (and with real leather you’ll be stuck with it for a good long time!). I’m not condoning frivolous spending, but more understanding the need for something right now that you can be moderately happy to use, despite knowing that it has a limited lifespan. And perhaps with the intention to buy a real leather product when you are able and know what you want.
This can be a great stepping stone to getting your dream product out of real leather. Unfortunately for many people, the line between plastic and real leather has been drawn rather shakily in the modern world. Plenty of ‘leather’ products available are indeed based in animal hide, but are also coated in a plastic compound. The only obvious difference between the two materials becomes the cost. And maybe a hint of that old leather smell. But the true nature of leather has been destroyed. At this point, the ‘leather’ product is really a synthetic.
What do you want out of your leather product?
I am an advocate for natural products because I appreciate the connection to ancient traditions that brought this product into my hands today and the familiar warmth of life that only natural products have. I also want them to return to the earth when they are through being used. My biggest beef with synthetics is that they will not do this (for a very, very long time) and a person will go through perhaps fifty synthetic products to just one real leather product. To me, leather is only natural when it is free from synthetics and any attempt at calling a synthetic product ‘leather’ is problematic and detrimental. Synthetic products termed ‘vegan leather’ are truly degrading a beautiful, quality, natural material and turning it into something it’s not, while simultaneously confusing vegans about their own values. (Should vegans buy things that are even called leather? Should they be concerned with the amount of waste that synthetics are creating?) Just call it something else and move on. (Remember when we used to be up-front and call this ‘Pleather’?!)
Ultimately it is up to the consumer to choose which leather product works best for them, which types of leather align with their values and budget, and up to the manufacturers of leather goods to be up front about what types of materials they use in their products.
>> I use hand-picked vegetable-tanned full grain cow hide leather for all of my wallets & bags to ensure longevity and durability because these are made to be used.
>> I use hand-picked chrome-tanned glazed pigskin suede for my jewelry because it is lightweight, beautiful, and does not have the same durability requirements.
Thanks for reading!
= irene =
P.S. I will be updating my website soon as to my leatherworking process as well, so you can look forward to even more disclosures!