Leather is a timeless material that has been around for millenniums. Initially used by the primitive man to hunt and to protect oneself from the elements, to later becoming widely used by our ancient Greek and Roman ancestors to make everything from clothing and footwear to weapons. Leather has long been respected by many for its beauty, flexibility and durability. Traditionally it is made by tanning animal skins or more accurately hides. There are many different animal skins that are used to make leather, though typically cow hide is the skin of choice.
When it comes to leather not all leather is equal, at least not in quality that is. People often make the assumption that genuine leather is genuine leather, end of story. That is, however, far from the case. What you’ll soon come to learn is that the term ‘genuine leather’ is actually more precisely referring to a specific quality of leather.
What many do not realise is that the quality of leather varies greatly. It is likely you have seen labels on leather items saying things like; ‘genuine leather’ or ‘full-grain leather’, these are different classifications of leather based on the layer depth in the animal hide and is perhaps the simplest way in distinguishing the quality of the leather.
When in the market for a leather bag or other leather accessory it is important to be aware of how leather varies and thus know what to look out for. The purpose of this article is to help with precisely that and in doing so answer the frequently posed question; what is the best leather?
As a general overview, the best quality leather will depend on the following key factors:
- The type of animal and breed from which the hide is derived
- Physical location and climate where the animal was raised
- The portion of the animal hide the leather was cut from
- The layer of the hide that is used
- Quality of the processing, tanning and finishing.
Afterall, hides are a natural material and are thus sensitive to a plethora of factors including the life of the animals that they come from.
Since the purpose of this piece is to act as a buying guide allowing you to make as fully informed decision as possible in selecting the finest leather good, we will focus on the aspect which you should actually know when looking at the product or at least be able to find out from the label or otherwise; this is the layer of the hide that is used.
Whilst the other above-mentioned factors can impact the quality of the leather good, notably the portion of the animal the leather was cut from (with only about 13% of the total hide being 1st grade, highest quality material), this is something you are highly unlikely to be able to find out about as a consumer of a finished product, thus making it somewhat irrelevant in the decision-making process.
Types (layers) of leather
Leather has five basic grains or qualities based on the 4 main layers of the hide; those are full-grain leather, top-grain leather, genuine leather, and corrected-grain leather. The layers of the leather correspond to the layers of the animal skin. The diagram below represents the skin cross-section of an animal and depicts these different layers matched to the corresponding type of leather.
Let us start by considering the 4 primary layers of a hide and how they vary in their characteristics. Starting from the top layer going down:
- The grain is the outermost surface layer of the leather hide. It is comprised of tight, densely packed fibres, making it very strong and durable. This is the layer of the animal’s skin that was exposed to the elements and any traumas the animal may have faced, thus can exhibit natural markings and scarring, giving this layer a very natural and distinctive essence. The texture of the grain is extremely smooth once the hair is removed.
- The grain and corium junction is the 2nd layer of the hide, where the tightly packed outer layer of the leather, the grain, transitions and blends into the slightly looser fibres of the corium. The junction is a combination of the very high quality, strong and smooth grain layer and the looser more fibrous strands of the corium layer.
- The Corium is the 3rd layer and is considered the middle layer of the animal skin and is typically the thickest layer of the hide. It is comprised mainly of collagen fibres which are looser and more open compared to the top grain layer. The corium is usually characterised as the tough and fuzzy part of the leather hide and is highly usable for producing leather, particularly given its thickness, meaning it can be contained in both top grain and genuine leather types.
- The flesh is the fourth and final layer of the hide and is the part you won’t be wearing. It consists of mainly muscle and fatty tissues and is not particularly usable for end use leather. Thus, this layer is typically split from the finer upper leather layers above it.
So, we have established the 4 primary layers of the animal hide meaning we can now move onto the core matter, that is the 5 corresponding leather types from these layers. The quality of the leather and hence any leather goods created from it varies significantly based on which layer it is derived from. Simply put the quality of the leather goes down from the top down, literally aswell as metaphorically.
- Full-grain leather refers to the finest quality, premium leather that money can buy. Derived from the top layer of the hide, it has the full grain of leather intact, since it has not been sanded or buffed to remove any of the natural grain, markings or imperfections. This means it is the strongest and most durable part of the hide, characterised by a smooth, luxurious surface. The natural patterns, lines and wrinkles of the skin are visible providing an appearance full of charm and character. Full grain leather is left completely exposed making it the most breathable leather type, meaning it does not wear out easily and instead develops a rich patina over time, a thin surface layer that protects the leather and gives an aesthetic appeal that tells a great story. Full grain leather tends to be used for high end luxury shoes and bags.
- Top grain leather is the second highest quality of leather, one that is often confused for being the highest given the word ‘top’. This layer does not comprise all of the grain, instead some of the grain is actually sanded and buffed off to remove imperfections and markings, this makes it slightly thinner and more flexible, aswell as creating a uniform, smooth surface. A finishing coat is then applied to protect it and make it stain-resistant, however this compromises breathability and gives it a somewhat plastic feel to the touch aswell as preventing it from developing a rich patina. Top grain leather is typically less expensive than full-grain leather, but is still in the top tier of leather grades, thus making it many people’s preferred option when buying leather goods, whilst still being durable and readily available.
- Corrected (split) grain leather or otherwise referred to as split grain leather, is produced using the remaining hide layers after the full-grain and top-grain have been separated. This is created predominantly from the corium, where there are fewer vertical fibres and more horizontal fibres that are more loosely packed, making this layer less durable. Corrected grain leather tends to be tougher in texture than the upper layers. Much like top grain leather the surface is also sanded and buffed to remove natural blemishes and imperfections by experienced leather workers to improve its functionality and aesthetic appeal. It is then often spray painted and finished with a leather-like grain pattern being embossed to give it a natural look. Although all of this processing does alter the intrinsic breathability of the leather thus making it more likely to deteriorate with age.
- Genuine leather is a term that is often misused and misunderstood. In fact, ‘genuine leather’ is not a statement about the authenticity of the leather, it is made from real leather yes, but in terms of grades of real leather it is one of the lowest in quality. The name genuine leather is almost used as a bit of a disguise of the fact that this kind of leather is pretty poor and tends to be a combination of the left-over leather after the high-end cuts have been used (often also used to make suede). It is produced from the bottom half of the corium, where there are more horizontal fibres, this does not bode well for the durability of the leather made from this cut as they can be readily pulled apart, therefore meaning this leather can wear out relatively quickly. Products made from genuine leather do not have the same satisfying look and feel as finer quality leather, neither do they last as long. However, given this leather is more affordable it is widely used for typical high street store leather products, but in our opinion doesn’t represent a sound long-term investment. So make sure to avoid falling into the ‘genuine leather’ marketing trap, as although its real it isn’t very good quality.
- Bonded leather is the lowest and cheapest quality of leather that can still be classed as real leather. It is made up of leftover scraps, dust and shavings of leather from the bottom cut of the corium of the hide. These leather scraps are then mashed into a pulp and bonded together with polyurethane, latex and glue which are then spread over a fabric backing. It is often then spray painted to give it the appearance of top grain or full grain leather. The trouble with bonded leather is that just as easily as it is bonded together it can become unbonded and unravel, causing the leather product to flake and peal. Thus the life of bonded leather is notoriously fleeting and we recommend you steer away from it, with faux leather and wax canvas offering more resilient and better quality substitutes at a similar price point.
So, in answer to the age-old question of what is the best quality of leather? The best and strongest type of leather is generally full-grain leather due to retaining all of the grain from the hide which has densely packed fibres, providing a toughness. Full-grain leather has some great qualities, it is; smooth, soft, flexible, rich in character and wears nicely over time. That being said, the best leather is largely dependent on the purpose or type of product it will be used for and hence the desired characteristics.