A few years ago, I went to a local market to buy a gift for my brother on his birthday. Roaming around, I found a gift shop selling leather products. A leather wallet seemed like a great gift. I did not know much about leather quality and was a total layman.
I picked up a nice-looking wallet and asked the shopkeeper if it was good quality material.
“Yeah, It is genuine leather,” He said.
To me, the word “genuine” sounded like “original” or “high-quality". It was only later that I found out genuine leather is the lowest grade of leather in the market.
Let’s talk about leather types and what makes a good quality leather.
Leather under the microscope - what do we see?
Above is a cross sectional drawing of an animal hide or skin. It has two sides.
The outer side, the one with hair, has grains. These grains are a very dense arrangement of dead skin cells. They provide the necessary protection against environmental conditions and prevent any harmful agent from reaching the inner layer.
On the flash side comes the Corium, also known as Dermis. If you look closely at the image above, the corium has vertical fibers at the top and horizontal fibers at the base. A robust cross arrangement appears at the top while a relatively loose arrangement appears towards the lower part of the skin. These fibers contain collagens, which offer strength and elastin that delivers elasticity.
What is Leather?
Many people confuse raw animal skin with leather, which is understandable. I did the same thing!
The leather is a processed material, obtained after tanning animal skin in tanneries.
The classification of leather starts with the type of tanning, the source of the raw material, and any finishing processes used. In tanneries, the rawhide is processed and turned, creating finished leather which is then used in the manufacturing of leather products.
The art of tanning is an ancient process and has evolved over the centuries. The process involves chemical cleaning, removal of skin hair, softening, dyeing and finally drying to get the beautiful finish leather.
There are two primary methods of tanning leather; Vegetable tanning and Chrome Tanning.
Vegetable tanning uses natural extracts, while chrome tanning uses chromed-based chemicals. Each process produces high-quality leather, with their pros and cons.
Thick animal hides are split into sections using splitting machines. The leather is classified into three different types based on the part of the hide used to produce the final leather.
Full Grain Leather
Full-grain leather is the outermost layer of the skin. It has excellent strength and quality due to the cross arrangement of fibers. If you look closely using a magnifying glass, you can see the individual grains. Full-grain leather is considered to be the highest quality leather.
Generally, the outer layer of skin is defective due to its direct contact with the environment. Bruises, cuts and insect bites render a significant portion of the skin unusable in product manufacturing.
The low availability combined with the high quality is what makes it the most expensive leather on the market. Full-grain leather develops a beautiful patina over time which gives the material a very vintage look.
Top Grain Leather
The defective section of the full-grain leather is sanded down using various tools and machines to remove a thin layer of the upper grains.
This leather is called corrected or top grain leather. Top grain leather has slightly less strength compared to full-grain leather. It also develops a patina over time. Top grain leather is available in significant quantities, making it less expensive compared to full-grain leather.
Genuine leather is prepared from the lowest section of the skin where all fibers are arranged in almost parallel fashion. This parallel arrangement significantly reduce the strength and wear resistance of the finished leather and is therefore considered the lowest quality of leather.
Genuine leather has no grain marks and a very smooth surface. Usually, it is pressed with an artificial texture to give it a grainy look. Genuine leather is used in low-quality products due to its low price and availability.
Identification of Leather
Accurate leather identification requires some level of expertise. Generally, full-grain leather has visible surface grains and a feel of good quality.
Top grain leather has slightly fewer grains and a smoother surface compared to full-grain. In most cases, however, it appears identical to full-grain.
Genuine leather is easily identified due to its artificial texture and highly polished surface. It has a feel of low-quality and lacks grain spots, which are the identifying characteristics of full or top grain leather.
Note: All of our products at Aurochs are made from full-grain cow leather. Check out our amazing collection of mens wllets