Luxury or Larceny? Identifying Different Grades of Leather
But not all leathers are created equal—and when you go to pick out a jacket, a belt, a wallet or a new piece of furniture, you’ll probably encounter a dizzying array of specialized terms to describe the different grades of leather—is your leather “Genuine,” “Bonded,” or “Full Grain”? Is there a difference? Which is better?
The Federal Trade Commission actually has released a series of official guidelines for “Select Leather and Imitation Leather Products,”
In fact, there is a big difference in both how the leathers are tanned, and how they are worked. But the problem is that regulation of leather grew up for different industries, with unique rules developed separately for shoes, watchbands and jewelry, luggage and bags, clothing, etc. There has been some effort to unify the rules under the Federal Trade Commission’s official guidelines for “Select Leather and Imitation Leather Products,” in response to deliberately deceptive labeling: cheap leather being sold as high-grade leather, man-made material being sold as genuine leather, leather veneer glued over man-made material being sold as genuine leather, and, most amusingly: “representations that products are made from the skin of a fictitious animal.” But there is still ambiguity, and the lack of consistent, strictly applied regulations means that many definitions are still confusing at best and misleading at worst. And the stakes are high. If you choose the wrong leather, your luxe new belt is likely to end in a wardrobe malfunction within the year. So, here’s what you need to know.
First, the “Leather” to Avoid:
Synthetic Leather, “Faux” Leather, Imitation Leather, or “Leatherette”
“Faux” is French for “fake,” and this “leather” contains no actual leather whatsoever. It’s cheap, it can look “real” in the store, and it may seem appealing for people who are concerned about animal products—but consider this: not only are many people allergic to the heavy chemical components of various “faux” leathers, the material is an ecological disaster to manufacture; and although it cracks and wears out very quickly, it won’t biodegrade anytime in the next millennia.
Bonded Leather (also “Shredded,” “Pulverized,” or “Ground” Leather)
This is the lowest grade of leather-like product that can be legally called “leather.” In reality, it’s made up of leftover scrap bits of leather that have been pulped and then glued together with latex or polyurethane over a fiber sheet. (Honestly, though, there is no minimum ratio of leather legal non-leather, so this is a very sketchy rating; several of the samples studied by the FTC had less than 20% actual leather in their composition.) If John Wayne had used a bonded-leather saddle, the bad guys would have gotten away, and Wayne would have been left swearing in a muddy ditch while his horse trotted off into the sunset.
Backed (also “Laminate”) Leather
In this case, a sheet of real leather is sliced lengthwise into numerous super-thin layers, and an outer layer of real leather is glued to a thick, generally synthetic, backing that comprises more than 30% of the total thickness of the product. It’s basically a cheap leather veneer. This product looks like leather, but it will soon separate, and is unlikely to wear for more than a few months before it has to be thrown away.
Has the visual appeal of real top grain leather, but it is made from a thin strip of leather sliced from the much less durable inner hide that has been coated with polyurethane and stamped to achieve the appearance of top grain leather. Calling it “leather” is basically a scam—over time (sometimes as little as six months), the polyurethane will peel, and the underlying material will split and tear. Not a good look for the Bat Cave, and an even worse look for you.
So, What’s the Good Leather?
Having said that…uncut leather is generally too thick, heavy, and stiff to be used comfortably for clothing or manufacturing purposes, so most manufactured leathers are split horizontally into two layers that follow the structure of the hide:
The two layers are the top grain (the thin outer layer, just below the hair) and the split grain (the wider inner layer). The top grain has a densely compact fiber structure, is more durable, and retains the natural patterning characteristic of leather. Split grain leather, cut from the inner or “corium” layer has a softer, more velvety texture (think of the stuff used for work gloves at the hardware store), and because it has a looser fiber structure, it is more porous and flexible. Full grain leather retains both the top grain and the split grain layers, so it is the thickest and most durable leather of all.
Top Grain Leather
Is thinner and more flexible than full grain leather, but retains the tightest part of the leather grain, so top grain leather is actually very durable. It can be a great choice for jackets and other products that need to balance lightness and durability. Like full grain leather, uncorrected top grain leather retains all of the scars, textures, and blemishes of the original hide, so each piece is distinctive and unique.
Corrected Top Grain Leather
If a piece of hide has too many blemishes or faults to be a good candidate for top or full grain leather, serious faults can be scraped and sanded away, and then the sanded leather can be imprinted with a stamp that mimics the texture of authentic leather. Because of the artificial stamping, corrected-grain leather has a smoother and more homogenous appearance than uncorrected top or full grain leather, which makes it a favorite in the fashion industry. To disguise the bits of “corrected” leather, most leather of this grade is given a strong pigmented finish, often black. A note of caution though—there is no regulation for the degree of correction, which may be minimal (rating: 100) or fairly extreme (rating: 1,000), so the actual quality and durability of the product depends on the integrity of the individual manufacturer.
Has the soft appearance and velvety texture that most people associate with suede, but it’s made from top grain cow leather that has been lightly sanded to achieve a very short, velvety nap. Also, because it is made from the more durable half of natural leather, it is less porous and sturdier than suede, so it is a popular choice for high-end shoemakers. The bonus is that nubuck never needs to be shined, but you’ll want to clean it with an eraser and brush designed specifically for nubuck to keep the texture in perfect condition.
Suede takes advantage of the natural velvety softness of the split-grain leather: the inner layer of the hide is further sanded to accentuate the knap, and that process transforms it into a flexible, lovely material that is surprisingly easy to clean and maintain (use a suede eraser and brush). Although it is less durable than top grain leather, and more vulnerable to water damage, it still wears very well, and has a unique beauty and texture.
Full Grain Leather
The highest quality of leather available on the market, full grain leather is uncorrected, so it shows the natural scars and wrinkles of the hide, and each piece will always have a unique and distinctive look. Because the grain is left intact, it also has maximum fiber strength and durability. It is often left unpigmented (look for the phrase “aniline dyed leather”), or minimally pigmented (“semi-aniline dyed leather”), because, over time, the leather will develop a natural patina, becoming even more beautiful as it wears.
A Final Note of Caution for the Most Confusing Leather Identifier of All: “Genuine Leather”
This is where industry regulations have really let people down, because “genuine leather” can, depending on the product, the geographical location in which it is manufactured/sold, and the ethics of the individual manufacturer, legally refer to:
- Leather cut from the split grain
- Corrected top grain leather
- A product that contains at least 80% leather, including bonded leather scraps or layers
- A product that contains some actual leather, including bonded leather scraps, or a leather veneer.
In other words, the gaps the in the regulations make this a sketchy rating at best. If you want to be sure that your purchase will last for years, getting more beautiful as it wears, it’s worth it to watch out for the more specifically regulated “full grain,” “top grain,” “suede,” and “nubuck” labels.
But if you want to skip the headache entirely, you can check out the Otero Menswear line of gorgeously handcrafted suede and full grain leather products here, in perfect confidence that you will be buying both the quality and durability that every superhero needs to survive the trials of everyday life.
Do you have any great leather stories? Heirloom pieces? Tragic faux-leather malfunctions? Let us know in the “Comment” section below…