Leather 101 - What is Leather & Quality Basics

Many of us know what leather is on a rudimentary level, but beyond knowing that it's made from animal skins or pelts, what is leather really? Basically, leather is the skin of an animal that goes through a special process called tanning that halts the process of naturally occurring decay. Leather can be made out of any animal that has a skin that is durable enough to go through the tanning process. Many mammals like cows, deer, rabbits, goats, foxes, and more can be made into leather, but did you know that there is leather made from different species of reptiles, fish, and even amphibians? I will go into more details on different leathers including strange and exotic leathers in the future, but know that there are an almost endless variety of leathers out there that are interesting and uncommon.

As for how to determine the quality of leather, I will explain how to do so in an extremely generalized and over simplified way. This information will be most relevant when shopping for inexpensive leather goods like wallets and belts from big box stores and malls, and this topic will be revisited in more depth in the future. With that being said, starting from worst to best:

  • Bonded Leather
    If you are familiar with wood and wood products, bonded leather would be equivalent to chipboard or particle board. When leather is made, the thickness across the entire hide is not even, so the tannery will shave off the back to achieve the thickness that the customer requires. Those leftover shavings will sometimes be ground into a dust, mixed into a paste, and spread out into sheets and refinished with a plastic topcoat. This leather is extremely stretchy and weak because the only thing holding the leather fibers together is glue and the plastic top coat. Avoid this type of leather at all costs.
  • Genuine Leather
    Despite its misleading name, genuine leather (when found in cheap mass produced items) is the second lowest quality of leather. When the tannery shaves off the back of the leather, if those shavings are large enough, they can skip the grinding process that bonded leather goes through and go straight to refinishing where a plastic coating is applied to the top of it. This ends up being slightly stronger than bonded leather since the fibers are still connected to each other, but it is still stretchy and weak compared to the next two types of leather. This would be the lowest quality of leather that I would consider acceptable if you are spending $50 or less on leather goods. To make things confusing, some manufacturers will call some leathers genuine when they are of extremely high quality. I see this happen most often when referring to exotic and rare leathers, since there are many faux leathers that can resemble the rare and expensive leathers while costing much less.
  • Top Grain Leather (Corrected Grain Leather)
    Now we're finally getting into the good stuff. Top grain leather is the first level of quality to include the epidermis layer of the skin. The majority of the strength in a leather comes from this outer most layer, so this leather is very strong compared to the previous qualities. Because leather is a natural animal product, there can be some imperfections in the skin such as scars, bug bites, and warts. Top grain leather addresses this by taking off a small amount of the top of the grain to remove these undesirable traits by way of buffing or lightly sanding. Because there is material being removed from the strongest part of the leather, it is technically weaker than if it was to be left alone, but this allows for higher cutting yield per hide as a manufacturer would not need to cut around as many imperfections. Many name brand bag manufacturers will make their mid-level products from this type of leather.
  • Full Grain Leather
    The cream of the crop, full grain leather is the complete skin. The back side may be shaved off to achieve a specific thickness, but the top layer is not touched which yields the strongest leather possible. Because this leather is not corrected in any way, any scars, bug bites, and warts present in the skin will remain. It's due to this lack of grain correction, high quality full grain leather becomes very expensive since the conditions that the animal was raised would have to be near perfect for them to have as few of these imperfections in their skins as possible.

I hope this has helped inform you about some of the basics regarding leather and it's quality, and if you have any further questions or would like to know more of the specifics, please feel free to contact me.

Next I will cover the different types of imperfections that can be commonly found in leather.