If you’ve been involved with men’s wear, you’ve probably wondered why leather is incorporated in so many pieces of clothing. Leather is literally used in everything. Mainly shoes, jackets, belts, watches and even pants.
But why is leather used so often?
Why has it been used for countless centuries as a material for clothing? Why haven’t we gotten over the beautiful aroma that fresh leather secretes from it’s pores? The same question ran through my mind.
So I’ve dedicated this article to explain the basics of different leathers and how to be un-scam-able by telling the difference between low and high quality leather.
To start everything off, let’s take a look at what leather actually looks like in it’s simplest form. Here’s a diagram of a cross-section of a piece of leather.
Leather is essentially a piece of skin that’s been cut from an animal, processed and crafted into the item that you have in your wardrobe. The thickness of the leather ranges from 0.4mm – 6.4mm and depends on which animal it comes from and the area of the body in which it has been taken from.
You won’t necessarily NEED to know each step of the leather manufacturing processes (such as; desalting, rehydrating, chroming etc.) but what’s extremely important to know is how to distinguish between good and bad quality leathers and where it comes from to ensure that you make the most bang for your buck.
Since leather is quite thick once it’s been taken from the animal (let’s use cows for today’s example as they’re the most common animal used for leather), it needs to be split in half. Manufacturers sell both the top half and bottom half of the leather.
Full Grain Leather
The very top of the leather where the hair follicles are (vertical lines) is called “Full Grain Leather” and is used to make high quality products such as rugs, furniture and bags. It’s more expensive than the bottom half as more processes need to be taken before using it.
With reference to the above diagram, the vertical lines above the box are hair follicles and the thick black boxes above are scars that the cow had developed while it was alive. You’ll be able to differentiate full grain leather by looking closely and seeing the pores from the hair follicles and any possible scars from the skin of the animal. No full grain leather item will look identical as all cows are different. This is a uniqueness no other type of leather can provide and which is something leather enthusiasts enjoy.
Top Grain Leather
Due to only “some” leather enthusiasts loving the scarred and off-looking look of full grain items, many companies choose to shave the scarred top off the full grain to make the leather look cleaner. This type of leather is what we call “Top Grain Leather”.
The top of the leather is shaved removing scars and lumps to create a smoother looking leather. You see this type of leather in high quality shoes, purses, sofas and watch straps. This kind of leather is of lower grade compared to full grain but still works just as well and will also develop a nice patina.
When we speak of the bottom half of the leather after it’s been split in two, we are left with what’s called “Genuine Leather”. The difference between the two is that due to the more horizontal and flat grain pattern (as seen in the above diagrams), the leather is weaker and of lower quality. The skin of the cow is made to protect the animal from outside harm. Thus, the outer side of the leather is made to take a beating rather than the under side.
Although “genuine leather” sounds like a high quality product, all it means is that the leather that's been used to make the piece is at it’s “almost” lowest quality. The leather is susceptible to more damage and will not last as long as the Top Grain or Full Grain leathers.
Genuine leather isn’t all that bad when compared to bonded leather. This quality of leather is the worst of the worst and please do your best to avoid it at all times. Remember when we mentioned smoothing the top leather by sanding and shaving the scars off?
Bonded leather is manufactured from the residue leather grain shavings heavily compressed together and designed to look like real leather.
You will often see bonded leather discolour and peel after only a few uses. They’re often used in items that you can buy in $2 dollar stores and cheap side shops.
Real quality leather such as your top grains and full grains are longer lasting as skin is made to last a lifetime. If you’d like to learn how to take care of your leather you can read this article.
In summary you have 4 types of leathers:
- Full Grain - Very high quality that leather enthusiasts love due to the animal scarring.
- Top Grain - Also high quality but the scars have been shaved off. Has an awesome patina. These are the kind of leather products you're looking for.
- Genuine - Bottom half of the leather when it's first initially split. Sounds like it's high quality but really isn't.
- Bonded - the type of leather used to recreate knockoffs. Stay away from bonded leather if you're intending to buy something quality.
Be weary of labels and make sure to ask question before purchasing a leather item.
Raising the collar standard,