Know your leather

Whether we’re talking about jackets, boots, furniture, hats, books, or an automobile’s interior, we need to understand some basic about the leather you’ll encounter.  Knowing these details will help you become a more informed shopper (…oh, that’s why that leather jacket is so inexpensive!) and also help you care for your leather in the best way possible to ensure years of pleasure.

All leather is not created equally.  There are many variations that will determine the quality of the leather.  Type of animal it was harvested from, where that animal spent it’s life, where…on the animal’s body…was the leather harvested from, etc.  All of this is out of your hands and often you won’t find tags that say “taken from the top hindquarter of Bessie the cow who lived a good life in temperate northern california climates and was hand-fed daily.”  To help you understand the different types and grades of leather involved, lets take a look at how each affects furniture as opposed to leather jackets.  Both can be made of leather, of course, but the similarities end there.  Before we dive into that, a leather primer is in order.

Leather primer

Before we even start, it’s important to know that there are few fully fleshed out industry standards here and depending on what company you are working with, what country they are based out of, and a lot of other factors, the different leather types will vary.  Sometimes wildly. So it’s best to understand the basics and then approach your leather purchase with an eye towards figuring out the details.  The below information will help you in this respect but cannot account for every variation you will see.  Do a quick search for “leather couch” and you’ll see many different descriptions that simply cannot all be described in one place (although it’s an interesting thought and I may undertake it).  In the meantime, it’s best to stick to the basics and be ready to ask a lot of questions and do some additional research before plunk down your hard earned dollars.

So, here goes…

It’s no secret – leather is skin.  Not to be overly graphic but if you peel of a chunk of your own skin and look at it from a cross-section view, you would see that it is made up of layers.  Each of these layers have varying levels of “toughness” and beauty.  The outside layer – what you see when you look at your arm or at Bessie the cow when she’s walking by, is the toughest layer.  It has to be.  It has to weather the storms, survive fights with other animals, brush up against barb-wire fences (we’re talking about Bessie, not your arm) and protect it’s owner from cold, heat, rain, etc.  So the outside top most layer of any skin is the toughest.

If you peel that back a bit, you can actually separate that top layer from the next layer – think of an onion.  You peel one layer away from another. If you separate those two layers, you now have a “top grain” layer and a middle layer we’ll just call “Split” right now.  So Top Grain leather is made of the surface most part of the skin…the toughest part.

You’ll see a two specifications here: Top Grain and Full Grain.  They are both technically “Top Grain” in that they are taken from the top most surface but they are processed a bit differently to achieve two different outcomes.  Again…important to know! Here’s what you’ll typically see

Top grain leather

This makes up the vast majority of the leather you’ll see used for high-end furniture.  These leathers can start with a lot of scars and blemishes but are corrected and even have a different grain embossed onto the surface.  The result is a very tough leather but one that doesn’t have the normal breathability of leather so tends to run hot in the summer and cool in the winter

Full grain leather

You’ll find this in fewer applications as this is generally the most expensive type of leather. Full grain is made by starting with leather that has fewer or no visible scars or defects.  Less work is needed to make it visibly desirable so, as a result, the finished product is a much closer match to simple, raw leather. Good breathability provides leather that becomes cooler in warm conditions and warmer in cool conditions, resulting in a leather that is well matched for skin contact.

Genuine leather

This is one of the more common types of leather you’ll encounter and it’s often tagged with something like “100% Genuine Leather”…apparently to differentiate itself from all the pretenders.  The good news is, yes, it is leather and it is genuine.  The bad news is that it is generally considered to be the lowest quality leather.  This leather is neither Top Grain, nor Full Grain – it is taken from elsewhere.  Knowing what we now know about Top Grain and Full Grain, can you guess where this leather comes from?  That’s right, the less desirable areas meaning the thinner leather or the lower layers.  Genuine leather products look great but the quality will not last as long as a higher end leather.  That being said, of course there are ways to keep even Genuine leather beautiful and functional for years.

Bonded/blended leather

As we said before, not all leather is created equal.  This definitely the case with Bonded leather.  One thing to realize is that leather does not come in large convenient sheets like man made products do.  A manufacturer cannot get a 100 yard roll of raw leather…we just don’t make cows that big (yet).  So the work done on leather focused on using as large of a piece as you can but you eventually will have waste – pieces or cuts that just cannot be used.  These pieces of leather are ground down, mulched up and bonded together (normally) with polyurethane.   As you can imagine, that process will break down over time far easier than normal leather will break down.  Bonded leather doesn’t last as long nor does it maintain it’s appearance as long.

Faux leather

It’s right in the name…faux.  That’s French for “fake”.  I guess calling it Fake Leather would detract from sales.  Faux Leather sounds so cosmopolitan! Faux Leather is created by combining a layer (usually PVC or Polyurethan…so PVC Faux Leather or PU Faux Leather)  with polyester, cotton, nylon or rayon.  This process creates a look and feel very close to leather but, buyer beware, it is highly unlikely to last anywhere near as long nor to retain it’s good look for nearly as long.

You’ll also see…

…various customized terms from stores that seem to be crafting their own name for the type of leather used.  Be wary of these…it seems they are trying to overdress a substandard leather when they do this.

 

Leather furniture – a few examples

I just did a Google search and read the leather descriptions for the different prices of couches.  Now, obviously a lot of other factors come into play but it’s interesting to note the following:

  • Search term: “executive leather furniture”
    • Price $4,989
    • Leather type: 100% full top grain leather. No splits vinyles or other material
  • Search term: “nice leather furniture”
    • Price: $1,499
    • Leather type: Genuine leather
  • Search term: “inexpensive leather couch”
    • Price: $699
    • Leather description: Faux leather; Polyester Blend

Again, I don’t want to mislead and state that all “Genuine leather” couches are “middle of the road”…they’re not.  Some are beautiful and will last a lifetime.  Every manufacturer is different. But, as a general rule, you’ll find that “Top Grain” and “Full Grain” will be more expensive due to the quality of the leather itself.

Leather Jackets

When looking at leather jackets, there are other considerations.  Most leather jackets will fall into the “genuine” leather category but a defining aspect is what kind of animal the leather is harvested from.  This can range from cows to lambs to deer to goat and much more.  Any jacket you look at can span the price range spectrum with any of the types of animal leather so it’s good to understand the differences from an aesthetic and functionality perspective:

  • Cowhide is the most common and also generally the toughest and longest lasting of the types of leather jackets.   An interesting concept to consider is that the larger the animal, the tougher the leather.  If you consider the animals named before, a cow is generally larger than a sheep so it’s leather will generally be tougher as well.
  • Bison has gotten progressively more popular lately as jackets made from bison leather become more mainstream.  Like cowhide leather, bison leather is tough and applicable to many different forms and functions but in many cases is even thicker and tougher than cowhide.  Motorcycle racing gear is often made of Bison leather due to it’s thick, tough nature.
  • Lambskin is the standard for soft, supple and comfortable leather. In spite of this, it is surprisingly durable and retains it’s good looks for years.
  • Deerskin is interesting in that it seems to almost defy the “bigger the animal, the tougher the leather” concept.  Deerskin is incredibly tough and long lasting and yet is typically one of the softer and more supple leathers.  Deerskin is often used to make gloves and hats as well as it is well suited for skin contact because of how soft it is.  Cared for correctly, deerskin can last as long as cowhide.
  • Goatskin is softer and lighter than cowhide and has a pleasant feel to it. Like deerskin, given proper care, goatskin jackets can last a very long time and, in fact, Air Force and Navy flight jackets are often made of goatskin.

Let’s do the same experiment for leather jackets.  What we’ll see is not different grades of leather (they are almost all “genuine”) but rather different types of animals from which the leather was harvested.

  •  Search term:
    • Price: $4,995
    • Leather type: Lambskin
  • Search term: “average leather jacket”
    • Price: $189
    • Leather type: Lambskin
  • Search term: “cheap leather jacket”
    • Price: $49.99 (and a nice looking jacket!) and $59.99
    • Leather type: 100% Genuine leather and  Genuine Lambskin Leather

…interesting to note that although Lambskin is highly touted as one of the nicer leathers to use for jackets, it is routinely used to make lower priced jackets as well as high priced.  Obviously, much of these price tabs are due to the name brand as much as the leather.

Automobile Leather

Leather used for automobiles is a bit different.  It has to be treated differently and is most often dyed and colored to match with the automobile makers needs.  With this in mind, there are three basic types of Leather to be aware of.

Analine

Dyed and tanned but with no protective coating.  Analine leather is beautiful to see and touch but has problems with longevity – it normally just doesn’t last as long.  You don’t see this much in vehicles these days as it’s ability to last just isn’t up to speed.  You will see it in some older vehicles however.

Semi-aniline

This leather is the most popular for high-end automobiles.  It is curated from premium hides with few defects since the final result has a very fine layer of protection that isn’t sufficient to hide defects.

Pigmented

Pigmented leather is seen in most cars that don’t demand the very highest level of form and functionality.  Pigmented leather is good, tough leather that has been given a layer of protection to help ensure the dyed and color stays intact for a long time.

I hope this all makes a bit of sense to you.  When I bought my first leather couch, I’m quite sure I overpaid or, at least, was under informed.  I look back to that day…long ago…and remember feeling how lucky I had been to find that bargain leather sofa/loveseat set for such a great price.  Knowing what I know today, I’m quite certain that “leather” probably wasn’t even real leather or, if it was, I’m sure it was the cheapest grade possible.  The couch was inexpensive and the “leather” faded and cracked within the first year.  With the above knowledge, hopefully you can avoid this kind of scenario and go forth with a better understanding of just what to look for when buying leather.