Leather Grades Explained


Leather, alongside denim, wood, and even stone, is one of the few materials we encounter in our everyday lives that actually gets more beautiful with time. The patina that develops through use, aging, and weathering, may not affect the longevity or functional conditional of these materials, but can improve the subjective appearance, feel, and value to the user. In Japanese culture, wabi-sabi is a term that can be used to describe aesthetics that are imperfect and fleeting: nothing lasts, nothing is perfect, and nothing is ever truly finished. Wabi can be used to describe the uniqueness of human or natural made things, and the distinct beauty of inherent imperfections. Sabi can describe the charisma that is acquired through wear and repair, reminding the observer of an object’s impermanence. The nature of these materials is to change over time, and any wabi-sabi enthusiast knows that the flawed beauty of a patina is earned, and not really a flaw at all.

There is no reason that a high quality, well-made leather item can’t last someone a lifetime if looked after properly. That is the philosophy behind Rivet & Chain. I do not subscribe to planned obsolescence, landfill culture, or the "buy cheap, buy twice" mentality. When purchasing a seemingly expensive product, try to see the value in how many times something can be used over its lifetime. If a higher quality item is more durable, or has been designed in a way that makes it able to be repaired, its cost per use can be lower than something that can be bought cheaply, and made to be thrown away. If we think of it that way, a quality item will not only give us greater pleasure when we use it, but be cheaper overall, because it should not need to be replaced as often. 

There are four main grades of leather: full grain, top grain, genuine leather, and bonded leather. These different kinds are independent of how the leather has been tanned, and so could apply to both vegetable and chrome tanned leathers. Leather grades instead have everything to do with the quality, appearance and strength of the finished leather. Different leather grades are chosen depending on the intended use for a particular product. How the designer would prefer a product to look, feel, age and cost, influence his or her decision to use a certain grade of leather. However, whereas full grain and top grain leathers are used depending on the desired function, aesthetic, scale of production and ease of maintenance, genuine leather and bonded leather are primarily chosen because of their lower cost, and yet similar appearance to the higher quality, and more expensive, full and top grain leathers.

Leather grades

 

What is full grain leather?

Full grain leather refers to leather that has undergone no alteration to its grain, or top surface of the leather. The very top of the hide has the tightest grain pattern, which gives full grain leather its strength and makes it the strongest form of leather. Because of its properties, full grain leather is usually the most expensive, and hence is often only found on high end leather goods. It’s strength affords it to be able to take a beating and endure many years, perhaps decades, of hard use. It is common for full grain leather to be finished quite minimally, without heavy topcoats which mask the natural grain pattern and seal the surface of the leather. This makes full grain leather more “breathable”, resulting in less moisture between skin and leather during prolonged contact, and more comfortable to use. 

Full grain leather wallet and bag
Full grain leather wallet and bag. The grain is completely natural, so wrinkles and small scars may be visible.

 

Analine leather refers to full grain leather that has been dyed with soluble dyes that do not conceal the natural grain surface by covering it up with paint or insoluble pigmented dyes. This makes analine dying suitable only for the highest quality leather, which has minimal scarring, branding, and fat wrinkles. Full grain leather is the only grade of leather which is capable of acquiring a patina over time. It’s unaltered and minimally finished surface is porous and so can absorb the oils from your skin, for example. This does make it a little more difficult to care for than top grain leather, which often will be given a clear topcoat to seal the surface of the leather, so dirt, spills and stains can easily be wiped away. However, full grain leather will be softer, more breathable (more comfortable next to skin) and feel more natural, so one is not always necessarily better than the other for all uses.

 

What is top grain leather?

Top grain leather refers to leather that has had the very top layer of its grain buffed or sanded away to remove any visible imperfections, such as scars, scratches, brand marks or wrinkles. This process removes the strongest fibers in the hide, which means that the finished leather has lost a good deal of its strength, when compared to full grain leather. By removing the very top grain, you are also creating a much more uniform appearance in the leather. Top grain leather may even be embossed to create an even grain across an entire hide, which can then be called “corrected” grain leather. Producing more uniform looking leather maximises the yield of usable material and creates a consistent aesthetic. This might be necessary across a whole item which might be quite large, such as a chair, or perhaps over a whole line of items where quality control in this aspect is very important to the manufacturer. Leather for upholstery, high end bags and shoes will commonly opt for this kind of leather where the designer is looking for a very clean, finished aesthetic. I, however, appreciate that leather comes from a once living animal, and so natural scars and marks in a hide are par for the course. These marks tell a story about how the animal once lived, just like how a patina that develops can tell a story about how the user of a full grain leather item lives.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Top grain leather handbag
Top grain, chrome tanned leather. As you can see, the pigmentation and grain surface is quite even across the whole surface; there are no obvious blemishes or wrinkles in the leather.

 

Where full grain leather can have minor blemishes where a cow has been bitten by an insect, or may have rubbed up against something, top grain leather will be completely even across its whole surface, making it a little bit less natural, but still of good quality. At Rivet & Chain, I buy only the best leather available, where scars and brands are few and far between, and I always cut around the most obvious scars that would be unattractive in a finished wallet or belt.

 

What is genuine leather?

Genuine leather is not really genuine at all, and actually refers to the third best grade of leather, or second worst. The making of genuine leather takes split leather, which is what is left after the more desirable top layer is skived thin for making anything other than soles, saddles and belts, for instance, and applies an artificial top surface with a realistic grain stamped into it. It is nowhere near close to full grain leather in terms of strength, and will certainly begin to peel and crack within just a few years of use. Inexpensive leather furniture is an example where genuine leather is commonly used. It is still advertised as leather, because that’s technically what it is, but has very different properties and a drastically reduced lifespan when compared to full and top grain leather. If the designer of a leather couch is clever, he or she will use top grain leather in high stress areas, to improve longevity, and use genuine leather on the sides and back, to keep costs down. There can be some confusion around genuine leather, however, because there are quality leather goods manufacturers touting there own products as being made from “genuine leather”, because they want potential customers to know that their leather is the real thing. So when buying leather, price is a good indicator of quality when it’s difficult to tell what you are buying.  

Bonded leather couch
A couch made from bonded leather that is peeling within just a few short years of use.

 

Is bonded leather even leather?

Barely. Bonded leather is awful. Only the cheapest leather items that dare still call it leather use this grade. If particle board can be called wood, then you can call bonded leather, leather. Bonded leather is essentially bits of leather shavings and scraps all glued and pressed into a sheet, backed with fabric and treated and finished in a way to make it look like the real thing. You would be just as well off, perhaps better, with faux or imitation leather than with bonded leather. You will usually find it covering mass produced books like bibles and very inexpensive purses and wallets. Disconcertingly, there has been a rise in its use in furniture in the last couple of decades, as consumers looking for the look and feel of leather demand lower prices. Naturally, in large products such as couches, the largest savings can be made by using bonded leather in their construction. Unfortunately, furniture is subjected to a great deal more abuse on a daily basis than usual bonded leather products, so it is guaranteed to fail, perhaps before you have even finished paying for it. Consequently, consumers should be cautious when purchasing inexpensive leather furniture, because it might be a purchase that ends up being rather quite expensive. To sum up, genuine and bonded leather can seem just like the real thing to the undiscerning eye, but don’t expect them to last.

 

What I use in my products

In addition to only ever using full grain leather in the making of my products, it will also always be vegetable tanned. I use vegetable tanned leather because it is usually always full grain and analine dyed. It also has the ability to take a stamp impression and burnishes nicely when friction is applied, usually with a wooden burnishing tool or canvas cloth. Chrome tanned leather, on the other hand, is almost impossible to burnish and will not take a stamp permanently. Wallets made in a similar way to ours, but with chrome tanned leather, would either have rough cut edges, or end up with painted edges that will eventually peel. Burnishing is the method we use for finishing the cut edges of our belts and wallets. Unlike painting, burnishing seals the edges and provides a beautiful, durable finish that won't wear away through use. It takes a decent amount of time and elbow grease, but it's the proper way to do things. That's why I use full grain, vegetable tanned leather - and always will.


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