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A Primer on the Different Types of Leather

A Primer on the Different Types of Leather
November 27, 2017 Richard Taylor
In News

Exploring Quality Leather


Anybody who enjoys buying superior quality clothing and accessories will recognise this scenario: you’re standing in a shop and browsing the shelves, or looking through an online store at different types of leather goods, and you’ll find yourself somewhat overwhelmed by the wealth of information and various categories of leather on display.

It sometimes seems as if there are so many types of leather on offer; a multitude of sources, production methods and gradings, not to mention types of leather finishes and styles, and it can be genuinely difficult to ascertain which are better than others, and which are most suitable to your needs.

It sometimes seems as if there are so many types of leather on offer; a multitude of sources, production methods and gradings, not to mention types of leather finishes and styles, and it can be genuinely difficult to ascertain which are better than others, and which are most suitable to your needs.

Man working with different types of leather using crafting DIY tools

For the connoisseur as much as for the casual shopper, it’s important to be able to tell the differences between the types of leather available. Not only are some gradings quite significantly better quality than others, but there are also differences in the properties of the fabric, with some being more suitable than others for certain items.

By gaining a deeper understanding of the terminology surrounding quality leather goods, consumers can begin to make more informed choices when making purchases - and this is something which all can benefit from.

With this in mind, we’ve put together this complete and all-inclusive guide to the various leather goods available on the market today. Armed with this knowledge, you’ll be able to shop with confidence, and rest assured that you’re buying yourself the finest and most appropriate leather goods for all your needs and requirements.

More so than ever before, consumers are demanding authentic, high quality and enduring materials for their accessories, and this guide to leather types is sure to help you with your search for the perfect fit.

What Affects Leather Quality?


As with almost all fabrics, there is a considerable difference between the high-end produce as those on the lower side of the scale, and several factors can easily affect the quality of the leather on offer.

The animal used

By far the most common animal used in the leather industry is the cow. Because the beef market is so vast (and constantly growing larger), there is an enormous supply of cow hide to be processed for leatherworking. However, cattle are far from the only animal used for leather production.

Pigs, horses, sheep and goats (the other principle meat industry livestock) also have their skins used for leather, and deer leather makes a regular appearance on the market, too. Of course, the list doesn’t end there. More exotic animals such as ostrich and kangaroo (again, both farmed for the meat industry) are also utilised in this way, and there is also a market for reptile-derived leather from snakes, crocodiles and alligators.

Herd of cows at summer green field. Agricultural concept
Alive crocodile on the shore of the pond.

The age and treatment of the animals

It comes as no surprise that the age of the animal, as well as the quality or conditions of the life it has, also influence the ultimate characteristics of the leather they produce. The sex, location and way the animal was fed is also an influencing factor. Younger animals provide softer leather, as do animals which have been protected from the elements.

The tanning process

The process which sees rawhide being transformed into leather is known as tanning, and it’s an artisanal skill which has evolved across the centuries to be what we know today.

Rawhides are first soaked for long periods of time in water, during which time they are cleaned and softened. After this, they are cured with salt - a process which draws out any residual moisture and ensures the leather remains free of bacteria, making it more durable.

Genuine Leather Hide in Beige and Brown Colors

Following this, it is soaked again, and then treated with milk of lime. This weakens the keratin proteins, making the leather softer and more malleable, and prepares it for the next stages of the tanning process. There are many, many methods of tanning used around the world today, such as:

  1. Vegetable tanning, which uses natural tannins found in trees and plants to produce supple and naturally coloured leathers (common in the furniture industry). 

  2. Chrome tanning, which utilises chromium sulphate to produce a distinctly supple blue-coloured leather, popular in clothes and accessories.

  3. Aldehyde tanning, which results in leather more suitable for sensitive skin (such as baby products), and is commonly a creamy white colour.

… and many, many more, using a range of different chemicals and substances to bring out various qualities, properties, colours and defining features.

Grades of ​leather


No lover of leather produce could have failed to notice that there are several types of leather defined by various ‘grades’ of quality. By understanding what is meant by each grade, and being able to recognise the key characteristics of each one, we can endeavour to ensure we’re picking out the best items for our needs.

1 .Full Grain Leather


Generally regarded as the highest quality of leather, full grain leather is made from the topmost layer of hide. Should you be looking to make a long-term investment into a leather item or accessory, it’s widely considered that this is the grade to go for: it’s extremely durable and long-lasting, and is sure to continue looking and feeling great for decades at the least.

Should have visible imperfections and natural markings and blemishes. Every full grain leather item is unique, and celebrated as such.

Genuine full grain leather tan color colose up background, Cowhide for crafsman
Leather tag with Full Grain Leather text embossed in gold

Full grain leather items are not sanded or buffed to remove their imperfections, as to do so would be to remove an aspect of the item’s character.

This grade of leather is not only flexible, durable and moisture resistant, it also has the ability to improve in its appearance over the years.

2. Top Grain Leather


Top grain leather is the second most valuable and sought-after grade of leather, and is slightly more affordable than full grain leather. Commonly used to make high-end bags, shoes, briefcases and accessories, it’s a wonderful material which boasts many similar properties to full grain leather.

Top grain leather generally will not have any imperfections and marks, and if there are any, they’ll be lightly sanded to reduce their impact.

Items made from this grade of leather will receive a finishing coat, which is aimed at making them look more like full grain leather.

This is also a beautifully malleable and versatile leather, which is resistant to moisture and which is long-lasting.

3. Genuine Leather


Also known as ‘split leather’, genuine leather is somewhat misguiding in its name. Items made from genuine leather are in fact made from the layer of hide which remains, once the top layers are removed in order to make superior products. Affordable and prevalent, genuine leather is used to make a vast range of items on the market today.

The surface of genuine leather is treated and sprayed, to give it the appearance of a superior leather.

It also has a highly distinctive chemical smell, and a somewhat plasticky appearance.

Genuine leather tends to wear out relatively quickly, and the appearance and properties of the leather degrade over time.

4. Bonded Leather


Items made from bonded leather are, as the name suggests, made up of scraps of leather left behind once the other grades have been removed and processed. It is reconstituted and glued together to produce leather items, and is most commonly found in the furniture industry.

The individual ‘scraps’ which make up bonded leather are dyed for consistency and textured together, to give the appearance of a higher grade of leather.

This grade of leather is known for separating and falling apart relatively quickly.

This type of leather can sometimes be recognised by its very neat, smooth edges, and is generally used in the production of low-end leather furniture.

5. Faux Leather


Faux leather isn’t really leather at all, but rather a man-made material which has been created to resemble real leather. There are several types of faux leather on the market, with some considerable differences in quality available.

Faux leather is dyed and waxed to resemble real leather, with varying degrees of success.

It is recognisable as fake, due to its plasticky feel and appearance, and the fact that generally the ‘pores’ will be at a uniform distance from each other.

It can be very resistant to wear, with a smooth and even surface texture.

Leather Finishes


The leather production process is one which involves up to a hundred and twenty distinct stages. The tanners and producers have a wealth of different options to choose from throughout the entire process, meaning that the end results can be widely varied due to the type of leather the tanner has decided to make.

As well as there being several options when it comes to the animal used and the grade desired, there are also many types of leather finishes available, each with its own characteristics, qualities and defining features. These types of leather finishes are designed to enhance the natural beauty of the leather, and make the leather suitable for use in different items.


Nappa

Nappa is the name given to a special type of finish, which involves ‘drumming’ high quality full grain leather, in order to provide a soft, comfortable feel and a finish which doesn’t interrupt the natural beauty of the fabric.


Suede

Using the flesh-side of the leather, suede is brushed and buffed to give a soft, velvety and highly attractive finish.


Nubuck

A Nubuck finish is highly similar to suede, as it involves brushing and abrasively buffing the leather to provide a soft, pliable and velvety finish. However, Nubuck involves the smooth or grain side of the leather, rather than the flesh side.


Aniline

Aniline leathers are treated with a fine, clear dye and wax, which is intended to allow the natural beauty of the colour and grain of the leather to shine through.


Semi-Aniline

This leather finish utilises a transparent dye, which is then added to with pigmented sprays that help to even out any irregularities or blemishes in the surface of the leather.


Reptile

Some high-quality leather products are made using the skins of reptiles such as snakes, crocodiles, alligators and more, and each of these will be finished using a variety of methods. The main challenge tanners face when finishing reptile leather is how to ensure the delicate skin remains protected, while also having its natural beauty and distinct patterns visible and on display.

How to Spot Fake Leather


Everybody appreciates the beauty, quality and luxury of a real leather item - there simply aren’t many other fabrics in the world of fashion and accessories which inspire quite so much passion and excitement among people. How frustrating it must be, therefore, to pick up what you believe to be a leather product… only to discover that it is made from faux or imitation leather.

This isn’t to say that all faux leather items are worthless. Indeed, modern advances in technology have seen some faux leather manufacturers producing some interesting and highly convincing fakes. However, when it comes to the sheer quality and suppleness, durability and luxury we expect from high end real leather, there simply isn’t any substitute.

Let’s take a look at some of the pointers you can watch out for, should you wish to ensure you’re only buying the best for yourself.

Take a look at the label


This may sound like a perfectly obvious point to make, but this is often the simplest and most direct way to discover what sort of material your item is made from.

Products made from real leather will clearly indicate as much on the label, as well as usually displaying the grade of leather they are made from. Imitation or faux leather products will list something like ‘made from man-made fibres’ on their labels, which should immediately let you know that you are not dealing with a real leather item.

Inspect the item’s edges


This is another simple way of ascertaining whether or not an item is made from real leather. Faux leather items and accessories will generally have perfectly smooth, uniform and straight edges, and they will often feel somewhat plasticky or foamy in the hand.

Real leather, on the other hand, will be a little rougher around the edges, and will feature less uniformity. On top of this, the edges will feel consistent with the rest of the item.

Look closely at the pores


Leather accessories and other items are made from the skin of a real animal, and as a result, the pores on the skin of that animal will be randomly scattered across the surface. This is something to look out for when inspecting your leather goods, as faux leather will generally have completely uniform pores which have been printed by machine onto the fabric.

Use your fingertips


There’s no better way of identifying authentic leather than by using your hands to feel the texture of your item. Real leather has an unmistakable handfeel, and despite the fact that it can be hard or soft, flexible or quite rigid, it has a suppleness and flexibility which is very, very difficult for faux leather manufacturers to reproduce. Faux leather also tends to be fairly stretchy, and will generally feel much smoother and more plasticky than the real deal.

Use your nose


Synthetic materials such a faux leather might be able to mimic the appearance and some of the textures of authentic leather, but they cannot reproduce that distinctive leather smell. If you want to familiarise yourself with this scent, take some time to visit a leather shop or the quality leather section of a department store, and learn to identify this aroma for yourself.

Quality and Enduring Appeal


For thousands of years, leather has been a highly desirable and sought-after material across the globe. It has been used in the production of everything from furniture to riding accessories, belts, wallets, clothing and hip flasks, and tanners and leatherworkers will continue to innovate and experiment with animal hides for doubtless generations to come.

We hope that you have enjoyed reading this article, and have learnt all about how to identify real leather, as well as gain some tips and insider knowledge regarding the types of leather, as well as the various grades and different finishes of leather products.

When it comes to this highly special and unique fabric, quality is everything. Marlborough of England takes great pride in producing and selling high quality leather items for its customers, using only the finest raw materials and highest levels of artisanship. We invite you to discover more on our site, and find a perfect Marlborough of England accessory for you to use and treasure for years to come.