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Knowing Your Leather

Elena Wang

Consider the use of leather in daily life, from household upholstery to sports equipment to staple boots, and the possibilities of what you may imagine are endless. Leather has served to clothe and shelter, accessorize and amuse from the prehistoric era to today. Mention 100-percent-genuine leather, however, and the response significantly narrows to what we consider to be luxury goods—expensive and high-quality investment pieces that look and feel superior.

As it turns out, the high-end leather market is saturated with products whose price tags far surpass their quality. Marketing descriptors such as “handwaxed lambskin” or “oiled suede” sound fancy. A grain pattern or “100%” tag is supposed to settle worries about the leather’s authenticity. These terms should not.

Here’s all you need to know to be a discerning leather customer:

Tanning and Splitting

Leather is, technically speaking, tanned animal skin. The same skin can be tanned and then split and finished into leathers of varying quality. There are two main methods of tanning the skin:

Vegetable tanning is the traditional slow-soaking of hides in a series of gentle vegetable liquors, while chrome tanning, invented in 1858, involves tumbling the hide in drums of metal chromium solution. More than 80 percent of the world’s leather is chrome-tanned.

Tanneries also employ combination tanning, following an initial chrome tanning with vegetable tanning.

The skin can then be split into:

Full-grain leather

This type is the best. It refers to the topmost layer of the skin, directly beneath the hair. The tightness of the grain renders the leather moisture-resistant and extremely durable. This is the only type of leather that develops a patina.

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Shinola leather hanging in Detroit

Top-grain leather

Thinner than full-grain leather, top-grain leather has been shaved down to remove the various blemishes characteristic of lower-quality hides. Because such processing also eliminates the strongest fibers of the hide, the strength and durability of top-grain leather is considerably reduced. It may also feel stiffer, and slightly like plastic.

Split-grain leather

This type works well for light-wear goods because it is the stretchier, fuzzy underlayer of the hide. Split-grain leather is, however, often finished to mimic higher-quality leather in heavy-use goods such as furniture. It develops a matte rather than smooth look and loses suppleness over time.

Finally, each type of leather can be finished in a number of ways:

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Leather air-drying after it has been dyed

Dyeing leather

Dyeing leather with transparent dyes in a process known as aniline colors the leather without altering its natural texture. Semi-aniline covers the leather with a thin topcoat, protecting it while also rendering it stiffer. Heavier modes of processing include pigmenting or protecting leather with thicker topcoats such as wax, oil or acrylic.

Nubuck and suede

The leather can also be buffed to give a velvety, matte feel. Nubuck—thought to originate from buck hide—is top-grain leather that is buffed. Suede, from the French term for Swedish gloves, “gants de Suede,” is similarly treated split-grain leather. Suede is therefore less durable and generally cheaper than nubuck, though suede is more popular.

Pattern and texture

If the leather exhibits a uniform grain pattern, the pattern has likely been stamped on. To identify the highest-quality leather, industry expert A. O. Avery advises looking for small blemishes. “These natural imperfections are the hallmark of great leather.” Scars from scratches or bites create mesmerizing variations in color. The strong and supple texture derives from the skin itself. The best leathers grow more beautiful with use and age, as they haven’t been chemically processed and their surface was not mechanically altered.

European Leather

Italy leads the global leather industry, with 20 percent of the world’s output in finished leather goods. Italian leather is also sovereign in quality because its production units remain much smaller than those of other countries. Often their cows are grass-fed and thus have fewer stretch marks, making this leather smoother than its competitors. According to a recent European Commission report on the European leather industry, however, annual leather production has been dropping across the EU for more than a decade. More specifically, production in countries that traditionally dominated the EU leather industry—Italy, Spain and France—has fallen while production in countries such as Belgium and Poland has risen. Most tanneries in the EU are small family businesses.


The majority of leather goods—luxury ones included—are mass-produced and processed with chemicals. The natural grains and markings whose differences reveal the quality of the leather are now often shaved down and sanded. What the consumer sees is an embossed pattern or a refinished surface. The highest-quality leathers possess a beautiful patina and earthy fragrance. The lowest-quality leather is known as bonded leather: Leather scraps are reconstituted to form a seamless piece of leather material that is less durable than even fabric.

Our lives today are dominated by synthetic materials. Leather is luxurious precisely because of its natural beauty and incomparable feel. This is what we believe we are getting when we devote substantial sums to leather goods that we intend to use, reuse and, perhaps, even pass onto loved ones; for the most part, we are mistaken. Choose your leather carefully, however, and you have a true heritage item to enjoy.