Different Types Of Leather – The Ultimate Guide To The Best Leather
Why buy leather luggage when there are so many new materials seeing the light of day? Isn’t leather old fashioned and out of date?
If you think that, we strongly advise you to think again. There are several reasons that leather is an outstanding choice of material when you’re looking for a new bag or luggage. Or why not a tablet case or a wallet?
We here at Travel Gear have to admit that we have lived in leather-related ignorance. There is so much to know about this material that we didn’t have a clue about. Now we do, and we want to share this knowledge with you. Let’s go!
LEATHER HISTORY - A VERSATILE RESOURCE
Ever since mankind learned how to use simple tools, leather has been a widely used material. Since prehistoric times humans have made use of the hides from the animals they hunted for food to make clothes, shelter, containers, boats and many small attires such as belts and decorative items. Later on, leather was also used as protective armor. The Romans wore a heavy leather shirt to protect themselves from sword-cuts and arrows.
Early human societies on all continents that were inhabited by man developed techniques and skills to turn skin into soft leather independently of one another. For example, the Indians of North America were skilled leather craftsmen well before the white man came to the continent.
In low temperatures untanned skin becomes stiff, while it rottens in warm conditions. Rubbing in animal fats was probably a deliberate attempt in ancient times to avoid these problems with the skin, and so the first tanning procedure saw the light of day.
Other ways of preventing the skin from rotting that was soon to be discovered was to smoke it or dehydrate it, as well as treating the skin with vegetable tannins from bark. Alum is a mineral that is fairly widespread in nature and early on it was used for tanning as well.
During the nineteenth century the use of chrome salts for tanning became widespread and is now the most common method.
Genuine leather - well that sounds great, right? The real thing, has to be the best. If this is what you think, then think again my friend. It is leather, that is true, but the best? Hmm, maybe not as it turns out. Confusing, right? Let us guide you through the terminology of leather types, and what they mean.
Full Grain Leather
A cow’s hide is built in layers. The fibers towards the surface are oriented in a more vertical manner and intertwined, and in a more horizontal manner towards the bottom. This makes the so called full grain part at the top of the hide very tough, whereas the bottom part is less tough and breaks easier.
An animal that lives outside will have some traumas to the skin, like bat or horsefly bites, or perhaps some cuts from barbed wire or a fellow cow who’s been kicking or biting. This all leave scars, or imperfections, in the hide.
Full grain leather still has the markings of the life lived by the cow left. This does not mean that the leather is bumpy or uneven, only that is has some marks and places where the color sets in deeper and makes that part stand out a bit. It ages beautifully, and a bag made from it will probably outlive you.
Top Grain Leather (Also Called Corrected Grain)
Top grain is the second highest quality (though you would think it’s the “top” quality, right? As we said, confusing!). It still has most of the toughness of the full grain but since the surface layer has been shaved off it does not age that well and get the beautiful patina that full grain leather does. And, the strongest fibers have been removed in the process.
So why does top grain even exist? Vanity my friend, vanity. Some people don’t like the imperfections or unevennesses of the full grain, but prefer the smooth and even surface of the sanded top grain. Fair enough! We all like what we like.
So that was full grain and top grain. However, there is also genuine leather and bonded leather. Phew, slightly confusing with all these terms!
Genuine Leather (Also Called Split Hides)
And guess which part is called “genuine”? Yep, the bottom part. It sure is leather, but not the superior quality you may imagine from the epithet. It’s not bad, but not the best.
The so called genuine leather is the bottom part of the hide, where the fibers are horizontal and more easy to tear apart than the top grain and full grain parts. The term split hides is also used, referring to the fact that upper layers have been removed.
Suede is genuine leather that has been made rough on the surface. Suede is tougher than fabric and can be used as lining for shoes and the like. Genuine leather can also be treated to become smooth, and that’s when you might think that genuine means best kind of leather. Genuine sounds so… genuine!
Almost forgot, bonded leather! Well, that is hardly leather at all. It does contain leather, but only scraps that have been bonded together with a binding agent. The uppermost part is a polyurethane layer, and there may also be patterns and surface coloring.
Although bonded leather is not even in close distance to the durability of real leather, it still has its uses for book covers (often Bibles!), fashion accessories and very cheap furniture.
WHAT IS ANILINE AND SEMI-ANILINE LEATHER?
Many people know of the terms aniline and semi-aniline leather, but have vague ideas what it actually means. Don't worry, you'll know in a moment!
Aniline leather is leather dyed in a vat with soluble dyes, so that the color penetrates all the way through the hide. The surface still retains its natural state, with all the marks, scars and visible pores still there to see.
Semi-aniline leather is treated the exact same way, so it’s nothing semi at all about the coloring process. So what’s the difference? After the coloring process additional coloring pigments are applied to the surface. This is to ensure a consistent coloring throughout the skin surface. Also, other finishing products may be applied to add for example an antique look. To top it off, a clear protective layer is added to make the leather stain and sun bleach resistant.
Less scrupulous manufacturers don’t let the aniline color penetrate all the way to the center of the leather. This way they can save a lot of money, since the coloring liquids are quite expensive. To check this, look for unfinished edges on the product. There you can easily see if it is colored all the way through. Beware of painted edges! They can conceal the fact that the hide has not been properly dyed.
Another way of hiding the fact that the leather is not colored all the way to the middle is by bending the edges and sewing them in place. This can look like meticulous craftmanship, but can actually be done to hide the blueish edge of the poorly dyed hide.
Ok, we haven’t covered why it’s blueish. Quick explanation: before the tannery treats the skin with oils, preservatives and colors, they remove the hair and the natural oils and moisture. After this and before the actual tanning, the skin is called “Wet Blue” because of the light blue color it possesses.
VALUE FOR MONEY
You know how we go on and on about “you get what you pay for”? Well, when it comes to leather it’s more true than ever. If you find a cheap leather item, like a backpack or wallet or even a sofa, it is not high quality leather in there. It may look nice enough on the surface, but you need to ask the right questions to find out the actual quality of it.
With your new knowledge of the quality of different leather types, you'll be able to ask exactly those questions that will help you determine if this is a product you want to buy.
And, you do want to look out for the expression “made with real/full grain/top grain/genuine leather”. If the manufacturer has added just one small piece of that leather somewhere on that item, they have fulfilled that claim. The rest of the sofa or whatever may very well be made out of vinyl.
Another trick you might want to look out for is how many pieces the item is made of. The seams are the weak spots in a leather bag, and the more pieces the more seams. Meaning, of course, that the durability of the bag will decrease with an increase in the number of pieces and seams. So why do that? The answer is as you might guess costs, the company saves a lot of money using all the small leftover pieces.
IS USING LEATHER ETHICAL?
Now this could easily be the subject for an article, or indeed a book, all on its own. We have no aspirations to cover this in that detail here, but will in short give our own thoughts on the matter.
First, we will never endorse products made from animals raised on fur farms. That trade is in our opinion deeply unethical, as the animals suffer from very poor living conditions. This goes for the exotic leather trade as well.
In fact, you should avoid imported items altogether as far as we are concerned. You have no control over how the animals have been treated, and very often animal welfare laws do not exist or are not enforced.
We do believe however, that if an animal has been killed for its meat, and treated well during its lifespan, it’s a good thing to use as much of the animal as possible. This is showing respect for the life that has been ended. This mainly means cow and pig skin from animals raised in countries that take animal welfare seriously.
There is also another aspect to the use of leather, and that is good and sustainable use of the resources on the planet. A high quality leather bag will probably outlive you, and the company whose products we promote here at Travel Gear Depot actually have a 100 years warranty on their bags, wallets and all the other leather items they sell. To us, this is making the very best use of our collective and limited resources here on earth.