When you think about leather products, you might be tempted at first to think that all leather is the same. But it’s a much more nuanced matter. Leather comes in a variety of styles and grains, and the exact kind of style can make a big difference in the products it’s used on. Here’s a very brief guide into the different types of leather out there!
Five Types of Leather Grain
The first thing to consider when it comes to leather is what is called its grain. The grain of the leather is based on the part of the animal’s hide the leather was taken from, along with other factors. The grain of the leather can generally be equated to its quality, and there are five grains to consider.
1 ) Full-grain
Full-grain leather comes from the top layer of the hide, and is often considered the highest quality. As part of the process of obtaining full-grain leather, the hair of the hide has to be removed, which leaves unique imperfections that are the hallmark of a full-grain look. However, on rare occasions they can have no imperfections, and this is a truly prized bit of leather.
2 ) Top-grain
Top-grain is basically like full-grain, but with the imperfections sanded and buffed off. While it does change, the look, top-grain is still a high-quality leather with a unique look all its own. The biggest advantage of top-grain is that the sanding process makes it especially good to dye or shape.
3 ) Genuine Leather
Genuine leather can come from almost any part of the hide. The main distinguishing factor is the processing of the leather, rather than where it is taken from. Genuine leather is highly buffed to remove any imperfections and make it look more uniform. Genuine leather is the kind you’re mostly likely going to see used for clothing and other fashion accessories.
4 ) Split-grain (Suede)
As we go down the hide, we get to split-grain, which comes from the lower part. It’s still a fine leather, even if generally not considered the same quality. But the great thing about split-grain is that its especially easy to color and dye, and thus can be used for some more creatively stylized uses. Split-leather is also used to create suede, a softer sort of material often used for shoes.
5 ) Bonded
Bonded leather is more of a synthesis of materials than the above grains. It is created from leather scraps that are bonded together using a product like polyurethane or latex. Bonded leather can be 90% leather, or as little as 10%; it all depends on the product. Because of this, it’s most often used for furniture like couches.
How to Recognize Different Types of Leather
Just knowing the different types of leather doesn’t automatically mean you’ll be able to tell them apart on sight. Fortunately, there are a few techniques you can use to help distinguish the different types of leather:
- Flexibility – The higher grade usually means the leather will be stiffer. Keep in mind that the higher grains tend to get softer with age, and thus become more flexible over time. But as a general rule, the sturdier it is, the higher the grain.
- Smell – Leather has a very distinct aroma, as anyone can tell you that’s been around high quality leather. Fake or imitation leather will smell more like chemicals and plastic. But true, high grain products will make themselves known by their distinct smell.
- Pattern – As mentioned above, full-grain leather often has unique imperfections that arise from its creation process. That inconsistency is a key way for you to tell it apart. By contrast, fake leather will look perfectly uniform. The imperfections are signs of authenticity.
In addition to the layers of the hide determining the grain, there’s another metric often used to determine the quality of leather, and that’s grade. Grade for leather is based on where it was actually taken from the body of the animal. Grades come in four tiers, with 1st being best, and 4th being worst. That’s not to easy 4th Grade is useless; each Grade can be purposed for something. But if you’re looking for the highest quality leather, 1st Grade is the one you want.
- 1st Grade comes from the top and back of the animal, is the most water resistant
- 2nd Grade comes from the area below and around the 1st Grade, and is still quite solid
- 3rd Grade comes from the main body and is more loose, less resistant to water
- 4th Grade comes from the head and extremities, and is mostly good for filler material
When considering leather goods, it’s helpful to consider “fake leather”, more commonly referred to as synthetic, artificial, or faux leather. This is a material that is created artificially, as the name implies, with the intent of imitating the feel and constitution of leather. There actually are some reasons to consider using faux leather over the genuine article. For one, it’s often cheaper, since its production is easier. It also has the added benefit of not harming animals. However, synthetic leather does have an issue with sustainability, as it often needs petroleum in order to be produced. Not only that, some of the chemicals are plastic based, and can be environmentally hazardous. In modern times, better practices for creating faux leather are being developed that use plant-based products, so with time, it may get even more sustainable and environmentally friendly. So, if you’re looking for a viable alternative to leather goods, synthetic leather is worth considering.
And there’s a basic guide to the different types of leather, their quality, and how to tell them apart. Leather is a sturdy material that is both functional and fashionable, and being able to identify the best kinds can help you find the leather product that best suits your needs. You’ll be stylish, and well-informed for your next purchase!