Consumers have been bombarded with leather terminology for decades, with tricky advertising and marketing tactics afoot, some buyers are understandably confused by the difference in leather grades. What do all of these classifications mean, and which grade will outlast the others by miles?
In general there are 4 basic classifications of leather but here at Portland Leather Goods we like to focus on the most premium grade: full grain leather.
This article is going to focus on leather coming from bovine creatures. Bovine Leather is by far the most popular leather in North America, and North America produces some of the best leather in the world.
The Low-Down On Full Grain Leather
Picture a cow grazing in a field, living its best life, withstanding the elements day in and day out. The animal is protected by its large hide. Naturally, the exterior of the hide is the strongest so it can protect the animal. It is also important to note that this external, top-most layer of the hide is the most beautiful and enduring when used in crafting leather products.
Full grain leather is the crème de la crème, the outer layer or top most layer of the hide which contains all of the natural characteristics from the life of the cow. Full grain hides are the most expensive for both producers and consumers. They are desirable because all of those tightly knit fibers that protect the cow against the environment are left intact during the tanning process, resulting in the strongest, most durable leather available.
Full grain hides are rare. In order to use the full grain of the hide, the cow had to live a great life in a pasture outdoors and in a good climate. Cows that are raised in less than ideal conditions have less beautiful hides, so they must be sanded down in order to produce beautiful looking leather. Full grain leather, however, hasn’t been buffed, sanded down, or altered to weaken it, so it is the most desirable in terms of its strength and longevity. It’s the same quality of leather used in long lasting outdoor gear like saddles, boots, and jackets. Your full grain leather wallet will likely be the heirloom piece that develops a patina you hand down for years and years.
What Is Top Grain Leather?
The term “Top Grain” refers to the upper layers of the hide, and are considered desirable since they come from the strongest part of the cow hide. If a top grain leather hasn’t been altered in any way, it has the “full” grain. When a top grain hide is buffed to remove blemishes, it has a “corrected” grain. Corrected grain leathers can vary in stiffness and durability. Some corrected grain leathers even rival full grain leather in quality. For example, among the most durable top grain leathers is Nubuck. The term Nubuck refers to a leather that has been buffed with a fine sandpaper to reduce imperfections and to give the leather a sueded, soft to the touch feel while maintaining the overall strength and structure of full grain leather.
What Is Suede?
Let’s talk suede. Soft, supple, malleable - it has a lot going for it! This is a popular leather for making delicate, colorful, and beautiful leather goods. One reason why suede is so delicate is because the top grain has been removed, leaving behind only the loose, soft fibers of the lower layers of the hide. These lower fibers are authentic leather, but since the tough top grain has been removed, they won’t stand the test of time in the same way that a full grain hide will.
What Is Genuine Leather?
The term most confused for quality leather. Given how wide of a net this umbrella term casts, it's no wonder consumers are the most familiar with it. While Genuine Leather can be used to describe any grade of leather in products that are often made in both “genuine” and “faux” leathers, Genuine Leather is most often built upon split hides, the most bottom layer of the leather hide with the loosest, least durable fibers.
In order to look like leather, a top-coat of waxes, resins, or synthetic materials, are applied onto the leather base, then stamped with an artificial texture to mimic the appearance of the best quality hides. Some genuine leathers can even be made by gluing layers of split hides together into a thicker material that is then painted along the edges to hide the evidence. Products made from low-grade genuine leather generally feature an eerie shine, almost plastic in appearance, because they’ve been altered so dramatically from their original state.
Character Through and Through
A full grain leather product tells a story. Since full grain hides retain the characteristics from the life of the cow, each wrinkle, scratch, and pockmark come together to remind us that the material had life. In the case of a Full Grain Leather Tote, we’re striving for beauty in longevity and durability, as well as functionality and design. A tote that has been sanded or buffed down to remove all traces of character and personality ends up identical to the one next to it, and ultimately won’t last nearly as long as a tote whose fibers are left intact, showcasing the traits that the cow worked so hard to gain in the first place! Our ‘Almost Perfect’ products provide the best of both worlds - a super durable, functional, full grain tote to last a lifetime, with extra character marks to prove it.