7000 years—that’s how long our civilization has been using leather to build clothing and other consumer goods. That’s a long leather legacy. So the leather trend stands the test of time, but will your products last just as long? Not all leather products are created equal. Whether you are purchasing a leather wrist watch or a handbag, understanding the difference between the five types of leather will help you make the best purchasing decision. Our guide to leather breaks down the five types of leather, common styles of leather, tanning techniques, how to tell the difference between leathers, and how to care for your leather goods.
Grades of Leather: What Are the Five Types of Leather?
Understanding the different types of leathers, or grades of leather, can be tough—tough as leather. But just because you are not a leather craftsman doesn’t mean you can’t become a leather expert. We have provided all the information you will need to make well-informed leather decisions. Below, the five leathers are listed from the most pure leather products to the least pure. The grades of leather are dependent on the layer of the hide, tanning process, and the material combination.
For top-of-the-line leather, choose full-grain. Full-grain leather is crafted from the outer layer of the hide containing densely packed fibers for a finer grain. Usually only the hair on the hide has been removed leaving natural imperfections in the material. Full-grain leather without imperfections is known to be rare and therefore highly prized in the leather goods world. This piece of leather is praised for its high durability. Because of its natural production process, this leather will also slightly change colors with continued use. Full-grain leather is most often found in saddlery, footwear, and upholstery. Many high-end leather producers use full-grain in their products.
A cut of top-grain leather is almost identical to full-grain leather. A top-grain leather cut is also taken from the top layer of the hide. The major difference is that the top-grain leather has been sanded or buffed to remove any imperfections. The sanding process results in a leather that can easily be dyed or shaped. Top-grain leather is still considered a high-end leather. It is used in many consumer products including wrist watches, handbags, wallets, book casings, and shoes.
As we move down the list, we see different leather qualities serving unique purposes. That’s the case with genuine leather. A genuine leather material is crafted from any layer of the hide—there’s no specification for this one. The leather goes through a sanding or buffing process to remove any imperfections in the hide. Genuine leather is typically used for belts, clothing, footwear, and other fashion accessories.
Split-grain Leather (Suede)
Split-grain leather is cut from the lower levels of the hide. It’s called “split-grain” because you use the bottom material after splitting the hide. Although it’s not as strong as top or full-grain, split-grain leather can still serve a valuable purpose in leather goods. The flexibility of this material allows for more coloring and embossing options. Shoes, purses and sofas are common products that contain split grain leather. This type of leather is also used to create suede— a widely used material in shoe manufacturing.
Bonded leather is a term used to describe a material that consists of anywhere from 10% – 90% of leather manufactured from various leather scraps. It’s typically used as a filler. The scraps are bonded together with polyurethane or latex. Since the amount of leather varies greatly with each bonded leather material, you don’t have a guaranteed quality as with other grades of leather. Manufactures typically use bonded leather for couches and other furniture.
How Can You Tell What Kind of Leather a Product Is?
If a product doesn’t specify the grade of leather, you may need to take matters into your own hands. We have outlined the three main ways you can evaluate what kind of leather something is.
How to Differentiate Types of Leather
Higher grades of leather are often stronger and a little stiffer than fake leather. However, your full-grain and top-grain leather will become more flexible and wear well over time. The weight of leather can also affect the thickness. So, some high-quality leather can still be quite soft. On the other hand, fake leather tends to be weaker and lose structure.
Rely on the old sniffer to determine if you have real quality leather. If you have low quality leather or fake leather, it will smell like chemicals and plastic. Real leather will smell like leather—that’s all there is to it! (If the leather is colored or painted, take that smell into account though).
The Grain Pattern
Full-grain leather may have some little imperfections in the leather and an inconsistent grain pattern. High quality leather will also have rough edges, if you’re seeing the whole hide. Lower quality leather will look perfectly uniform because it’s been manufactured.
Common Styles of Leather
Here are some of the common leather styles you may find while browsing for your next leather good.
For a traditional leather, heritage leather undergoes a natural oil tannage for a high-quality piece of leather, leaving it with rich highs and lows.
During the tanning process, navigator leather is infused with oils that not only give it a rich, creamy hand feel, but allow it to take on a personality of its own as you carry it. Scratches rub out easily and the color variation that naturally occurs with wear only enhances its character — making it the ultimate no-fuss leather.
Manufacturers or leather-good companies will use the term “luxe grain” to signal that the leather is high quality or luxurious.
Harness leather is extremely tough and undergoes fewer waxes and oils than other leathers.
Nappa or Smooth
Nappa leather is dyed with water-soluble colorants that makes it more resistant to light. The leather process creates a material that is ultra-smooth with minimal grain texture.
Pebble grain is just as it sounds—leather with a pebble-shaped texture. This same texture can also be found on the double-face luxe leather and on natural leather. Pebble grain has two main advantages: a unique appearance and a scratch resistant surface.
Top-grain calfskin is used for nubuck because it’s known for its resilience. However, there tends to be more blemishes and unique differences in the grain because top-grain is thick and tough. The outer layer of the leather is then refined through a series of buffing and sanding, equating to a velvety-soft finish.
While most leather is dyed, natural leather is vegetable-tanned and left its organic color. This technique emphasizes the patina that will come with time, embracing the worn-and-loved look.
Vachetta leather is unfinished leaving it more susceptible to the elements and wear. This may seem like a disadvantage, but again, this results in a patina that many see as the highlight of leather products.
Signature leather also celebrates natural beauty. Rich and supple, you’ll be able to see the grain variations on signature leather pieces. It begins with a shine that will gently matte over time to create dynamic contrast.
Tanning involves drying out a hide by removing any water molecules. In order to restore moisture and flexibility in the leather, leather craftsmen will use a mineral or vegetable tanning method.
Mineral Tanning (Chrome Tanning)
Mineral tanning is the most efficient method for tanning. This process was invented to increase leather production as it only takes one day to complete the tanning process. The result is a leather that will retain its color throughout its lifespan.
In comparison, vegetable tanning is a natural process that uses only natural tannins. Leather shades are created from naturally occurring tannin in oak, chestnut, or mimosa trees. This process has been around for centuries and was first used by ancient craftsmen. Vegetable tanning can take anywhere from 30-60 days to produce. Because of the lengthened production period, vegetable tanned leather is often more expensive. However, vegetable tanned leather is highly durable and aesthetically pleasing. Natural leather patinas change appearance as they’re exposed to the elements.
How To Care for Your Leather Goods
Learning to care for your leather products will help extend its lifespan and maintain its appearance. Care instructions vary depending on the grade of leather. Other than referring to the manufacturer’s recommendations, here are some helpful tips for leather maintenance.
Spot clean your leather goods with a dry cloth to remove any dirt. Do not use water on lightly treated or untreated leathers as those products are vulnerable to staining.
Other Non-suede Leather
For materials not including suede, use a small amount of soap with lukewarm water to wipe off blemishes. Air dry, do not expose to heat. Always remember to spot test a small area first before using a condition or cleaning product on your leather goods.
Saddle Up for Quality Leather
It’s time to take your accessory game to the next level with a high-quality leather product. Whether it’s a new leather watch, belt, or bag, the beauty of a new leather product can quickly elevate your wardrobe.