A Comprehensive Guide for Buying the Best Leather

Buying a genuine leather item requires thoughtful consideration and keen eye of recognizing the quality of leather. For most average shoppers, leather is just leather. But, many of you know that isn’t true, right? Manufacturers often use different types of leather, depending on the end product.

As you are going to invest considerable funds for buying your favorite genuine leather products, you must know two things:

“What is the best place to buy leather?”

“How to buy the best leather?”

While making a final decision is up to you, the details provided in this leather guide has everything that will surely level up your knowledge to make the final decision.

But, before we dug deeper into various types, qualities, and features of leather, let’s first take a glimpse at the history of the leather industry and how it has developed over time

Leather Industry

Leather tanning has been around for centuries. It’s one of the oldest industries in human civilization. Indians, Egyptians, Greeks, Chinese, and Mesopotamians had developed several different tanning processes centuries before industrialization. Leather was used to make intricate clothing articles such as footwear, gloves, and armor. It was also used to make buckets, bottles, and even weapons. The Industrial Revolution brought all kinds of new technological advances that made the leather-making process highly efficient, environment-

Global Leather Goods Market

  • According to theGlobal Leather Goods Market 2017-2021 Report, conducted by Technavio analysts, the global leather market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of almost 5% from 2017-2021.
  • In 2017, the total market value was $217.49 billion. It is expected to reach $271.21 billion by 2021.
  • This segment is expected to represent an incremental growth of more than $53.72 billion during the forecast period.
  • The sub-segment of global footwear market was worth $126.99 billion in 2016.
  • In 2016, the Americas registered the highest leather revenue of $83.67 million.
  • The global leather goods marketsize was $95.4 billion in 2018. It is expected to reach $128.61 billion by 2022 at a CAGR of 4.36% during the forecasted period.
  • On the other hand, a recent market report by Technavio claims that the global leather market will register revenue of almost $289 billion by 2022.

Different breeds of cows will produce different quality hides due to their genetics and environment.  Hot climates tend to have insects that bite the animal and leave scars whereas cold climates don’t suffer from pests as much.  Certain breeds might have more protective hair or thicker skins due to the weather.

Different portions of the hide also yield different quality leather. For instance, the lower portion, as shown in the diagram above, tends to have looser fibers that make up the hide.  The looser fibers sponge and swell when wet.  Lower portions of the hide also tend to get marked much easier from insects and scrapes like barbed wire fencing.  There are also more wrinkles in the hide around the legs, neck and head.  These scars and wrinkles become permanent and are almost impossible to remove in the processing of the leather.

Different layers within the hide also have an enormous impact on quality.  Full grain leather and top-grain are the best.  See our in depth focus on the grain vs split just a few paragraphs further down to know which portion you are buying.

Finally, knowing exactly how to take a raw hide and process it through tanning and finishing is a sought after skill and will influence the quality of the final product significantly.  Italian leather is admired for this very reason – as Italian leather artisans are considered amongst the most skilled in the world.

In general, there are four types of leather.  These include Full Grain Leather, Top Grain Leather, Corrected Grain Leather, and Bonded Leather. Take a look at the picture below. See how the fibers run both horizontally and vertically in different parts of the hide.

Buying leather with more horizontal fibers wears out quickly because they can readily pull apart. Vertically running fibers, however, are the strongest. In other words, the higher the number of vertical fibers, the better.

A. Full Grain Leather

Full grain leather comes from the top layer of the hide. It includes all the grain with it – hence the name full grain leather. This type of leather retains the inherent toughness, as well as the imperfections because there are no surface alterations or splitting.

It is the highest quality leather and the only one suitable for saddleback. Thus, it is also the most expensive. Working with this leather material is challenging. It absorbs body oils and develops a patina over time – a characteristic that attributes to its popularity.

Common Uses: Saddlebacks, sought-after leather products.

B. Top Grain Leather

Top grain is the second highest grade of leather. Usually, to obtain top grain leather, the top layer of skin from blemished hides is split. The surface is sanded to get rid of inherent imperfections. Pigmentation or staining gives the leather an attractive look.

This also makes top grain leather smoother and more flexible than the full grain. Although this type of leather is strong and durable, it tends to stretch permanently over time. It is used to produce suede and nubuck. Most high-end products, such as handbags and jackets, are comprised of top grain leather.

Common Uses: Suede and nubuck-making, making high-end products such as handbags and jackets.

C. Corrected Grain (Bottom Cut/Split) Leather

Corrected grain or split leather, also known as genuine leather, is produced using the skin layers that remain after the top is split off and from the corium predominantly (see diagram above).  Split leather tends to be tougher in texture due to the fact that is resides under the top layers and is mostly used in applications that don’t require the leather to be soft like furniture backs and sides.  Just like the top grain leather, it is also sanded to remove natural imperfections. Usually, the surface is spray painted and embossed with a leather-like pattern to resemble natural appearance. However, the processing alters the inherent breathability of the leather.

Common Uses: Making jackets, handbags, messenger bags, accessories, footwear, and furniture.

D. Bonded Leather

Bonded leather is made up of leftovers of the hide. This includes the dust and shavings. These are bonded together using polyurethane or latex on top of a fiber sheet. It is often spray-painted to look like full or top grain leather. You can’t determine the percentage of natural leather unless the manufacturer chooses to disclose it – which is very unlikely. Bonded leather is the lowest (and the cheapest) grade of leather.

Common Uses: Making furniture, bookbinding, and various fashion accessories.