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4 Things You Should Know About Leather

4 Things You Should Know About Leather

Posted on 15 July 2017

Look at your belongings right now:

I think it's likely that you own at least one thing that's made of leather and there's also a good chance that it is made of genuine leather. You're probably thinking that it is the mark of quality, right?

As it turns out, that's not quite the case as genuine leather is actually just about the lowest quality of leather you can get out there.

Here at KAPITALGOODS, we love our leather products and our philosophy is to curate products that only utilise the best materials. Naturally we seek only to carry products that use top quality leather. However, in order to make the distinction, it would help to first know the four main things about leather, namely:

  • Sources of animal leather
  • The types of leather
  • How leather is made
  • How leather is dyed

We hope this will help you gain a further understanding and appreciation of the leather product you're using. And to finally put to bed that misconception about genuine leather.

So let's get started with where leather comes from.

Sources of leather

Leather can come from almost any source of animal, even fishes. Salmon skin leather is becoming increasingly popular for example. Interesting right?

Most leather today though, is taken from cows because of their size, availability and quality of leather. However, depending on the use, leather is also commonly taken from animals like goats, sheep, deer, horses and kangaroos. Additionally, some of the more exotic leathers come from crocodiles, alligators, ostriches, eels, snakes and stingrays.

Cowhide offers the best value since it is very durable and inexpensive. However, it is quite heavy compared to other kinds of leather. Cow leather is used for virtually all kinds of leather products and can be left as is or easily dyed in an array colours.

Calfskin has a very smooth surface unlike the generally pebbled surface of cowhide. It is also lightweight and more lustrous.

Goatskin is generally thought to be thinner and thus lighter than cow leather; it is also softer and more supple. It is also quite durable due to its water resistance thus it is most commonly used to make gloves or boots.

Deerskin is soft and supple but with high abrasion and good water resistance. This makes it ideal for gloves, bags, small leather goods as well as upholstery.

Lambskin or sheep skin is quite delicate compared to other leathers, and has a very soft grain surface. This results in little to no scratch/abrasion resistance. It is also prone to stretching without regaining much of its original shape. However, because of its superior insulation properties, it is most often used in high-end leather garments and coats.

Kangaroo leather is strong and flexible yet extremely lightweight. It is most commonly used in motorcycle jackets due to its high abrasion resistance to weight ratio.

Shell cordovan is leather made from the fibre layer found under the hide of the rump of the horse. Shell cordovan does not crease, unlike other leathers, instead forming ripples/humps. It is also extremely hard wearing. This is why it is used in the manufacture of top quality shoes (like Alden, Allen Edmonds and Crockett & Jones) and watch straps.

Types of leather

Leather can generally be classified into 4 types - full grain, top grain, genuine leather and bonded leather. Knowing these 'grades' of leather allows you to be aware of things like the price range, the durability, the ability to develop a patina and even whether the surface is more or less likely to have had a coat painted over.

Full grain leather is the highest quality leather available and naturally the most expensive. It is the topmost layer of the hide that has not been sanded or buffed, thus allowing the entire grain to remain and hence its name. The grain is made of vertical fibres, which are tougher to pull apart and the reason why full grain leather is so durable. Being the top layer, small scars and imperfections may occasionally be found; those marks that are determined to affect the integrity of the leather should be cut and discarded by the cutter. Of course, there's a distinction within full grain leather itself and those without marks are even more scarce and prized, since products can potentially be crafted from a single large unblemished piece of leather. However, minor imperfections - like scars from insect bites or wrinkles from old age - add to the unique character of the leather and product; it is proof of its origins.

Additionally, the beauty of full grain leather, especially if it is vegetable tanned, is that it will develop a beautiful patina over time. A patina develops when it is exposed mainly to bodily oils, sunlight and humidity. Since full grain leather is devoid of any surface coating and the most breathable, it is able to absorb these elements into the leather and cause its appearance to change over time. With our philosophy of curating goods that utilise only the most premium materials, all our leather products are made from full grain leather.

Top grain leather is the next highest in quality, typically with a more uniform or consistent look on the surface. This happens when the top grain has been split from the top layer (or full grain) as the hide has been deemed to have too many imperfections to be used as full grain leather. Alternatively, a finish coat is added after the surface layer is sanded or split and 'fake grain' (such as saffiano or certain types of pebble grain) is stamped on it; this is also called corrected grain leather.

The coating causes the leather to be less breathable and thus does not develop a natural patina as well as full grain leather. On the other hand, the main benefit of surface-coated top grain leather is that it is more stain-resistant as compared to full grain leather. The thinner layer of leather also makes top grain leather much more pliable and flexible from the start. Many well known luxury brands use top grain corrected leather because it has a good balance of protection and leather quality.

Genuine (or split) leather is the lowest quality of leather there is - it is the bottom layer (flesh side) or what remains after the top is split off for full grain and top grain leather. While still considered real leather, it isn't as durable or aesthetically pleasing as higher quality leather. It is typically painted over in order to resemble better-quality leather.

Below is an example of a genuine leather belt with the painted layer peeling off after use. Notice also the "grain" of the leather which has been stamped on. However, the cross section indicates several layers of leather likely to be bonded together with glue. Genuine leather is found in many mass-produced or 'mall brands', because it is inexpensive and is useful for a few years depending on frequency of use. Indeed, one could actually spend less over time if they were to buy a product made of top or full grain leather instead of repeatedly replacing the one made of genuine leather.

Bonded leather is made of the scraps of leather, after splitting and shaving, that have been glued and pressed together to form one piece. Naturally, such leather won't last long. So unless you're looking for something cheap that won't last long, you should avoid bonded leather products. Some people consider bonded leather similar to or same as genuine leather. 

Suede and nubuck are very common kinds of leather used in shoes and sometimes even in clothes and bags. Suede is actually made from split leather, where the inner layer is sanded on the flesh side to produce that soft, napped surface. The softness is due to it being the inner most layer of the hide and why it also works well as a liner. In contrast, nubuck is typically top grain (or even full grain) leather with its outer layer lightly sanded and brushed. The fineness of the top grain results in the velvety surface most should be familiar with. Nubuck is therefore more durable but less pliable than suede.

How do you get leather and what is tanning?

Earlier, when we mentioned vegetable tanning and patina, I'm sure some of you might have had a quizzical look. So, what exactly are these terms?

First of all, tanning is the process through which raw animal hide is transformed into leather. The animal hide has to be stripped and treated before undergoing the tanning process in drums or pits, where the hide transforms into leather after being soaked in a tanning solution.

Then, there are two main methods of tanning; the rest, like brain tanning and aldehyde tanning, contribute to a small percentage of the leather available in the market. In vegetable tanning, the tannins - which are organic substances - in the tanning solution are typically obtained from tree bark like oak, quebracho, mimosa; tannins are sometimes even obtained from fruits. Similarly, chrome tanning takes its name from the synthetic chemicals - mainly chromium - used in the tanning solution.

Vegetable tanned leather accounts for about 5-10% of the world's supply of leather because of the costly and complex nature of this process. Due to the complexity, it requires highly skilled and experienced workers mostly working by hand in order to achieve the tannery's desired result. Consequently, the tanning process can take up to 1-2 months for some tanneries, whereas chrome tanning can typically be completed in less than a day. Lotuff for example, soaks their hides for months in pits dug in the ground, and further processes them in drums especially if dyeing for colour.

Vegetable tanned leather is highly desired because it retains the natural characteristics of the hide. Additionally, such leather also develops the best patina, which is usually a darkening or colouration of the leather. Vegetable tanning aids this process - no chemicals are used, which doesn't change the nature of the leather, thus allowing the sun and contact with bodily oils to cause the leather to slowly develop a patina. However, it is also because of this that vegetable tanned leather is susceptible to stains.

If stains are a concern or you do not desire a leather patina, applying a leather protectant can reduce the susceptibility to stains as well as slow down the development of a patina.

The chrome tanning process was developed in response to the costly, complex and time-intensive nature of vegetable tanning, as mass production of leather was required in order to meet demand. The chemicals used in the tanning process result in a leather that is very soft and supple. Furthermore, it also "locks in the dye" which ensures that the leather maintains its colour very well throughout its use. The resultant leather is highly resistant to stains and heat, which make it preferable for bags or upholstery, for example.

However, the downside to chrome tanning is the use of chemicals, which when not properly managed, can result in a negative environmental impact. Also, compared to vegetable tanned leather, it does not age as well and dries out faster, which means more regular conditioning is needed.

We have summarised a basic comparison of vegetable and chrome tanned leather below for your reference.

Vegetable tanned leather Chrome tanned leather
  • Biodegradable due to the natural tannins used
  • Non-biodegradable due to the use of chemical compounds
  • Minor scratches can be easily buffed out
  • Can be easily scratched but cannot be buffed out
  • Will acquire a patina and become softer over time
  • Colour generally remains uniform and does not develop much of a patina or to a lesser degree
  • Stains easily and prolonged exposure to heat can cause leather to dry/crack
  • Fairly resistant to stains and heat
  • Can be rather stiff at the beginning and usually becomes softer and suppler with prolonged use
  • Soft and supple at the beginning
  • Not environmentally friendly if it consumes a lot of water
  • Not environmentally friendly due to chemicals use and improper methods of disposal

 

Here's a little something for those who are curious; there is a simple test to differentiate between the two types of leather. If you burn the leather, and it doesn't burn in flames and you see grey or black ashes, it is vegetable tanned leather. Chrome tanned leather burns more easily and its ashes will be green in colour.

Colouring the leather

How do you get the various beautiful colours that your favourite leather products come in? They go through a dyeing or coating process to achieve that shade of blue or green.

Aniline leather takes its name from the aniline dyes used. Aniline leather has been dyed through, which is why if the side of the leather is exposed, you can see the colour penetrating the entire hide. The resulting product is a leather that retains its full grain and is still breathable, which is why only top quality full grain leather will be aniline. It can also still develop a patina over time. While aniline dyes are chemical based, some tanneries have gone to the extent of developing their own organic dyes in order to achieve the colours they want.

Semi-aniline leather is similar to aniline leather but is pigmented at the surface to produce a more consistent and richer colour than just aniline dyeing alone. Furthermore, a light surface coating - usually polyurethane or some polymer -  is applied to impart stain resistance, and produce a more consistent and richer colour. The natural characteristics of the full grain leather is generally retained.

Pigmented leather typically uses split or top grain leather since a strong coat of pigment applied at the surface conceals the characteristics of the hide. This results in a plastic or artificial feel to the leather. However, pigmented leather is the most resistant among these 3 kinds of leather. It also maintains its (consistent) colour throughout the life of the product.

We hope this article has helped your understanding of leather a little more and in so doing, also help you make more informed decisions when purchasing leather products and better appreciate them. Remember, genuine leather is actually leather, but it's just about the poorest quality you can find out there!

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