- Real leather is an extremely durable material made of layers of trillions of densely packed fibers
- The uppermost layer of leather is called Full Grain Leather and has the highest concentration of fibers giving it the most strength
- There are hundreds of forms of leather depending on which layer is selected along with how the hide is preserved, oiled and waxed
- The least durable leathers are from the lower layers or from ground up recycled cuttings (suede, genuine, bonded, patent, top grain)
Over the years I have found that there is quite a bit of confusion around how to judge the quality of leather for the item you are buying. Most people are only familiar with leather goods they find in large retailers and big chain stores. Unfortunately this has caused a lot of common misconceptions and my aim is to clear all of that up for you on this page.
Here at Mr. Lentz Leather Goods I use what is called Full Grain Vegetable Tanned leather on all of my wallets, bags, belts and accessories. For dog gear I use Full Grain Latigo Tanned leather (high waterproofing/minimal stretch characteristics). All of my leather is sourced from the remaining top U.S. tannery and they use all U.S. cowhide.
WHAT IS LEATHER?
Cowhide in its raw form is actually a waste product of the beef industry that is sold to tanneries (to preserve and turn into leather). There is actually a large excess of raw cowhide and most of it is never turned into leather and is thrown out or turned into animal feed. When you purchase leather goods, you are buying a product that has been upcycled and put to good use.
Leather is composed of trillions of interconnected fibers that get denser and denser the closer you get to the surface. The denser the fibers, the stronger the leather. The fibers are held together by collagen proteins, and how this protein is preserved will affect the durability and qualities of the leather (I wont bore you with the technicalities here though!)
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.
CUT OF LEATHER
A cow’s hide can easily be around 1/2 inch or thicker. That’s some pretty thick skin!
Full Grain leather is 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. Full Grain Leather is the absolute toughest cut of leather you can get. As such…it costs more. A lot of other 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. Consumers tend to think that scars or other markings on leather is what makes a cheap product, the reality is that this can be an easy identifier of a Full Grain leather product. And for the reasons described above – Full Grain leather is the best choice for any leather item that will see repeated daily use.
So what will a company do that chooses not use Full Grain cuts? They might go with one of these four options: Top Grain, Genuine Leather / Suede, Bonded Leather, or “Vegan Leather” / Vinyl / Pleather.
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 leather that has been sand blasted smooth to remove any imperfections on the surface. It’s not the worst thing in the world…it just ain’t the strongest either and is not recommended for wallets. You can get away with using it for bags, but again it’s the cheaper, weaker choice.
Genuine Leather (Also known as suede) 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 or Top Grain layer cut off to sell to higher-end makers. The remnant is a slightly stretchy piece of cheap leather called Genuine Leather. One side of Genuine leather is usually sanded smooth, finished with a resin and re-imprinted with a subtle ‘grain’ pattern to give the look of what some people believe to be higher quality. 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” (Also known as Vinyl, or Pleather) gets the quotes around it simply because it is not leather at all. Without going into much detail…it’s usually 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. Recently the term Vegan leather has been used to described an array of ‘natural’ artificial leathers. From my own research the natural part is only partially true. Typically a natural base is used, ground up, then pressed into thin sheets with resins or glue. Remember Bonded Leather? Yep – similar idea and not likely to be any more resistant to wear.
TANNING OF LEATHER
The second attribute of leather is the tanning style used to preserve cowhide and make the hide into a usable product for companies. There are actually a large variety of types of tanning methods, but I will focus on a few of the most important and relevant: Vegetable Tanned, Chrome Tanned, Brain 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 as well, and as such it costs quite a bit more. Vegetable Tanned leather is known for the 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 of 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 expect 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.
Brain Tanning is the original method for preserving animal hides. It’s actually not too common these days, but I thought I’d throw it in here for good measure! This style of tanning is typically used on deer hides and was developed by Native American tribes a long long time ago. The idea is that you take the de-furred skin of the animal stretched out on stakes, and rub in a bowl of the animals smushed brain matter into the hide. The brain matter is high in fats and oils and that combined with the hide being smoked will work to prevent rot and create a usable piece of leather. An interesting fact – this is one of the few types of leather that can get wet without damage. You can just squeeze the water out and let it dry, perhaps adding a bit of oil back in later. It’s also the only type of leather that is breathable, thus why you typically see Native clothing and jackets made from it.
FULL GRAIN VEGETABLE TANNED LEATHER FAQ
I put together a short page on the frequently asked questions about Full Grain Leather. You can view it by clicking this link.