If you are in the market to buy a nice leather wallet, you might have realized there are a ton of options out there. A lot of companies make wallets, a lot of small workshops make them, and it can be hard to tell the good from the bad from the straight up horrible. Well, I am going to spell out what to watch out for before buying a leather wallet – so you will be able to make an educated decision.
First and foremost, you will notice that the vast majority of wallets out there are stitched. Now, I have a personal bias against using stitching in wallets due to the amount of wear and handling they see. Wallets tend to get handled 10 – 20 times more often than a bag or any other leather good. As such the weakest link will be the stitching. This is usually the firs to go in almost every wallet I have seen. Thread can fray easily with repeated rubbing in a pocket, and it just takes one stitch to break before the whole thing will come open.
If you do feel the need to go with a stitched wallet, I wont judge you – but you will need to know a few things about how the stitching is done to make sure you aren’t buying a cheaply made item.Beware of the machine sewn wallet. This is the worst way to make a sewn wallet (also the cheapest, fastest, and most profitable way for the company doing it). The sewing machine is very limited to a certain kind of stitch called a ‘Lock Stitch’. It’s not nearly as nice as it sounds. Without getting too technical, a lock stitch does not actually ‘lock’ a stitch in place. In fact if one ever breaks, quite the opposite will happen and the entire piece will quickly unravel. Most people have actually experienced this unfortunate event with their first wallet or two!
The machine sewn wallet has a second disadvantage – it does not used waxed thread. Waxed thread helps to bind a stitch together when hand sewing, and it helps to protect the thread from the elements.
If you go with a hand sewn wallet, likely they will use what is called a ‘Saddle Stitch’. This style actually creates a very weak knot buried in each stitching hole to help hold the stitch in place. It does a decent job holding things together if a stitch ever breaks…giving you enough time to still use the piece until you can get it repaired.
Lastly, if you get a hand sewn wallet, check to make sure that the stitch is actually placed in a depressed groove in the leather. Stitching is not supposed to be right on the surface of a piece, rather a good quality piece will have it lay in a small channel of leather. This keeps the leather lower and out of the way of day to day abrasion. Some makers will actually cut a groove into the leather to lay the stitch into, beware of this practice on wallets and other thin leather items…removing the top layer of leather actually significantly weakens the leather. You might expect the leather itself to fail on a piece with a cut groove.
There are a lot of people out there making wallets that have been laser cut. The leather is put into a small laser cutting machine, a template is loaded onto the computer, and the shape is burned out of the leather. Now – people doing it this way will often tout that their wallets are very precisely made with a laser beam, but believe me – the last thing you want to do is burn leather. Leather and extreme heat do not mix well – it creates toxic off-gassing and it depletes the leather of natural oils. No amount of re-oiling will bring back that cut edge, and it will forever be brittle and crack.
Not only is this an extremely environmentally unfriendly practice, but when you go and cut the stitching holes with a laser beam…you get circular holes. Circular holes will not hold stitching if a thread gets loose. Historically, and still the correct way, the stitching holes are a diamond shape and no material should be removed in the process of punching the hole. Basically the diamond shape is made by a small awl sharpened to cut through the leather. In doing it this way, a loose stitch will be held tightly be the surrounding stitches in what we call Saddle Stitching. It also enhances the overall look of the piece by allowing stitching to have that subtle zig-zag pattern. Laser cut holes will make a stitch look dead straight.
Now why would a company cut their products with a laser beam? Well, it’s generally a very fast and cheap way to make an item…but certainly not the best or recommended.
CUT OF LEATHER
Leather is sorted by two different main attributes. The cut of the leather – which refers to both what part of the cow’s hide it came from and how deep down it was layered. The other is the Tanning of the leather, which refers to what method the Tannery used to preserve the cow’s hide for use in leather goods. In this section I will briefly go over the Cut of leather.
A cow’s hide can easily be around 1/2 inch or thicker. That’s some pretty thick skin! Oh, I should note at this point that cowhide is only a by-product of the meat industry, so farmers don’t raise cattle to sell hides, they simply would not make nearly enough money for it to be worth it. Without the meat industry…the leather industry likely would not exist. Ok now back to the cut. The outermost layer is the toughest part of a cow’s hide. It’s the part exposed to the outside elements and consists of extremely tightly packed fibers. We call this type of cut – Full Grain Leather. Full Grain Leather is the absolute toughest cut of leather you can get. As such…it costs more. A lot of companies prefer not to spend the money on this extremely durable cut for two reasons. One…it’s expensive. Two…the top layer of leather tends to also have scarring and other markings and imperfections. This makes it hard for mass-producers to pump out products that are all exactly alike.
So what will a company do that does not use Full Grain cuts? They might go with one of these four options: Top Grain, Genuine Leather, Bonded Leather, or “Vegan Leather”.
Top Grain leather is basically the layer below Full Grain. It’s weaker because when you go deeper into the hide, the fibers are less and less dense. Top Grain leather usually comes from Full-Grain leahter that has been sand blasted smooth to remove all of those imperfections. It’s not the worst thing in the world…it just ain’t the strongest either and is not recommended for wallets.
Genuine Leather is probably the least understood term by consumers. It’s kind of a marketing ploy. The word genuine implies ‘real’. Well, it is real, but it’s a cut of leather much lower down in the hide with much much looser fibers. Most genuine leather is actually the remnants of a hide after it has had its Full Grain layer cut off to sell to higher-end makers. The remnant is a slightly stretchy piece of cheap leather called Genuine Leather. This is a fairly typical type of leather used in mass-produced goods. In wallets, they will usually line the leather with a fabric to help it last longer and prevent the thing from basically disintegrating after the first month!
Bonded leather is basically the scraps of the scraps of leather…ground up into a fine mess and pressed into thin sheets using bonding agents or glue. Ever see a leather jacket for $40? It’s probably bonded leather, or vinyl! Obviously this is a poor choice for a leather wallet and this type of leather also needs to be sewn to a material backing to keep it from disintegrating…which it always does.
A lot of people associate thin leather with poor quality. Bonded leather is usually the reason for this misconception. Since bonded leather is thin and it usually falls apart…people associate thin with cheap. Full Grain leather can actually be cut thin and still maintain its durability, something most consumers are unaware of.
“Vegan Leather” gets the quotes around it simply because it is not leather at all. Without going into much detail…it’s a PVC based vinyl that has been marketed to consumers as an earth friendly product because it does not involve cows. I am not sure if y’all know much about plastics but they certainly aren’t earth friendly. Plus vinyls tend to degrade with sun exposure and will dry up over time and crack. Most people have experienced this in one way or another with anything made from vinyl.
TANNING OF LEATHER
The second attribute of leather is the tanning style used to preserve it and make the hide into a usable product for companies. There are actually a large variety of types of tannages, but I will focus on the two most commonly seen and used: Vegetable Tanned and Chrome Tanned.
Vegetable tanning is a process of soaking the hides in different types of tree bark for weeks or even months at a time. The tannins in the tree bark help to preserve the leather. It’s a longer process, more complicated too, and as such it costs quite a bit more. Vegetable Tanned leather is known for its quality of looking better the older it gets. It’s what most consumers hope for or think of when they buy leather, but few actually see because they have purchased a cheaper knockoff using the tannage described below…
Chrome Tanning is a process where hides are preserved using chemical compounds known as chromium salts. It’s a quick, cheap and dirty process that basically creates a lot of pollutants. The chemicals absorb into the leather and eat away at the bonds between leather fibers creating an artificially soft leather. People love soft things, so a lot companies make leather goods with this tannage. The problem is that the chemical treatment actually works to break the fibers down to a degree. This weakens the leather and over time it will wear out much faster than a vegetable tanned piece. Consumers expecct to receive soft leather items only because they are used to buying this cheaply made tannage of leather. It’s kind of sad and I spend a lot of time emailing people about the difference. Vegetable Tanned leather will arrive somewhat firm, but will break in and soften quickly with use. This is the right way to do it, naturally bending and stretching fibers instead of chemically breaking them down.
BELLS AND WHISTLES
A lot of wallets out there come with all the ‘bells and whistles’. Several card pockets, plastic ID inserts, lined with fancy patterned material…all of which are usually the first to fall apart with a wallet. You see – a wallet gets handled a lot, every day. The best designed wallets are the simplest, with the fewest things to stretch, break, or tear. In order to fit many of these extra features, wallet makers typically have to resort to using very thin leather…bonded leather. And we all know where that leads!
Some people are ok buying a cheap wallet, but if you’ve read this far, your likely not one of them! You can certainly buy a cheap wallet, have it break, buy it again and repeat your whole life. Or – you can get a nice one…with a warranty. If it’s a well-made item the maker should stand behind it with a warranty for repair.
Genuine Leather, Bonded leather or Vegan Leather (explain why)
Type of leather – vegetable tanned, chrome tanned
Full grain Vs. Top Grain
Bells and whistles (that usually break)