Who does not love leather; Who does not want the distinction that leather gives you!
The elegance of leather products when used to make clothing, accessories or home decor is unparalleled. Nothing to say about the durability of Leather; With age, leather gets better looking – wish I could say that about myself.
Not many know what leather really is ? and consequentially How to recognize good leather from the fake.
What is leather? What is it made of ?
Basically leather is the skin of animals after it is treated to many processes that refine it and beautify it. The skin is tanned with high grade oils and preservatives before it is stitched to make the things you love.
What are the different types of leather
There are many different types of leather which really confuses me when I go to buy. I am the kind who ask why, what, when of things I buy – this way I have come to know a little bit about different leather products
You have to first know that the three things which decide the quality of leather you buy are
- Tanning process
- Type of hide
- Location of the cut
- The thickness of the leather.
Classification of leather by where it is taken from.
- Classification of leather by where it is taken from.
- Classification of leather by its type
- Full grain leather
- Top grain leather / Corrected Grain Leather
- Genuine leather
- Split leather
- Bonded leather
- Classification of leather by its purpose
- Upholstery Leather
- Strap leather
- Chamoise leather
- Saddle leather
- Lining leather
- Classification of leather by the process of tanning
- Vegetable Brain Tanned Leather
- Chrome tanned leather
- Brain tanned leather
- Synthetic Tanned Leather
- Classification of leather based on the treatments on its surface
- Aniline leather (Unfinished leather)
- Nubuck leather
- Semi Aniline leather
- Pigmented leather
- Bicast Leather
- Classification of leather, based on surface look
Other than cows, the skin of lambs, goats, horses, pigs, sheep, deer, kangaroos, snakes, alligators and even elephants are used to make leather products. Cow, Lamb, calf, and goatskin are the most used in the leather industry. You may have heard of different names like calfskin, reptile, lambskin, kip etc. Here are the explanations for the most popular.
Leather from Cow hide
This is the most popularly used leather – and the leather made from an adult cow is the most used. It is quite thick but at the same time soft and somewhat abrasion resistant too. This is known generally as Cowhide (hide taken from a fully grown cow, a mature female bovine that has produced a calf.). This is also used extensively to make a number of leather products.
A calfskin leather is made from the hide of young cattle. It is soft, smooth and is very much in demand for making high quality expensive leather accessories; Kip leather is a lightweight leather from cow hide, from a calf who is older than the one for calf leather. The leather is fine and supple but not as much as calf leather.
If you are new to sewing with leather it is better to start with cow skin (calfskin) or lambskin.
Leather from other mammals
Deer skin is the most toughest leather among the leather taken from mammals. It is very durable and at the same time soft and lightweight and also stretchy. It is also very expensive to buy.
Hide taken from sheep and lamb give you a grained and fine leather – it is collectively called lambskin leather. This leather is quite supple and lightweight. It is used to make things which mold to a shape like gloves and fitting garments.
Elk leather resembles deerskin leather. Leather made from the skins of pigs or hogs is called Pigskin.
Buffalo hide is a lot stiffer than cow hide and has deep grains and patterns. It is a very durable leather, much more than cowhide. So making shoes and other rough use things with this hide makes sense.
Goat skin is another popular skin used as leather because it is quite inexpensive. It is supple as well as durable.
Leather from Reptiles
Hide taken from crocodiles, snakes, turtles, lizards (even some endangered species) are all used to make leather and they all say “sophistication and exoticism” as well as exclusivity. They have distinguishing patterns of the animal’s scaled skin.
Dog skin is also rumored to be used which is a dirty secret you and I know, but no one else does (other than the readers of this article in the guardian)
Classification of leather by its type
Usually, leather is split into two or more layers for commercial use. The top layer, containing the natural grain is called top grain. All other layers are splits.
Full grain leather
This is the best quality leather and the most expensive. This comes from the outermost portion of the hide of the animal, after the hair has been removed – natural imperfections or hide marks are left as they are to become a part of the leather. This leather is not used for upholstery purposes because of this.
You can be sure that this leather is going to last a long time and will get better looking as it ages.
Get this leather if you can afford it; But it comes with a heavy price tag.
This leather is given surface treatments (as mentioned below) for use to prevent stains and make it possible to be used.
Top grain leather / Corrected Grain Leather
The corrected-grain leather has an artificial grain applied to its surface after it is sanded to remove the top level natural imperfections of real animal skin and prepared. You can say that it is as real as the full grain leather, with just a little make up on. Some may consider this inferior to the full-grain one, but it is good enough for a lot of your uses.
Infact it is most in demand for uphostery. It is the second-best choice after the full-grain leather for most other projects. It can be made from cow skin or buffalo skin. Cow skin is more supple and more expensive than buffalo skin.
One would have thought that genuine leather is the genuine one ; I thought that – but seems like it is not so.
Genuine leather is below in quality to the full-grain leather; In fact, the color is usually achieved by spray painting the surface of the leather but to an uneducated eye it looks quite a high grade and the original leather.
This third-grade leather is often passed off as the real high-grade leather. But the buyer would soon learn after it ages and looks worn and not so good, unlike the leather which is high grade.
This is leather that is split from the skin of the hide – it may be the middle and bottom layer of the epidermis.
As such this is a very fragile leather, very weak and has many cracks, and cannot be used to make any usable and durable items. But the many leather treatments it undergoes makes it durable and attractive (like the finished split, a coated split or a suede split). The advantage of this leather is that it is cheaper than full-grain leather (Some countries have laws that forbid this leather to be marked as fine leather-so look out). It is usually used for furniture/upholstery making.
As the name suggests this is bonded together leather. Also called regenerated leather, it is much in demand in the furniture segment.
Scrap pieces of unusable leather is made into a paste which is glued together to make a leather like product – basically, when you think about it, it is leather – but then, not really. This is not what you want if you are in the market for good genuine authentic leather. But it has the looks of leather and it is inexpensive so many prefer it for furniture accessories etc
For a layman, it is difficult to know the difference between good leather and bonded leather. You will be able to tell the difference only once you have used it – obviously, the leather product will far outlive the bonded leather product. Another fact is that bonded leather starts to look worn and ugly after some use unlike the real stuff. So you will know soon.
So if you find that the leather product you bought believing it to the best is starting to look quite ugly, you can be certain that it is really bonded leather.
Classification of leather by its purpose
Leather used for making upholstery – this is usually cowhide leather.
Heavyweight vegetable-tanned leather used for making straps and upholstery.
This is a soft and flexible leather made from sheep hides or lambskin.
This is a vegetable-tanned flexible cattle hide leather with a natural tan shade. It is usually used for making harnesses and saddles.
Different varieties of leather (sheep, lamb, goat, kip etc) used for lining bags, holsters etc
Classification of leather by the process of tanning
Rawhide is the leather that is not tanned. As per the process of tanning the leather is classified as
- Vegetable tanned leather
- Brain tanned leather
- Chrome tanned leather and
- Synthetic tanned leather.
Vegetable Brain Tanned Leather
This leather undergoes a traditional treatment with extracts of vegetables, fruits, and other plant extracts. It is very soft and flexible as well as strong. It is not water-resistant and gets damaged if exposed to water. This leather is considered to be of top quality. So if you get a chance, buy this one. It is costly though.
It is also called Oak tanned leather when oak bark is used for tanning.
Chrome tanned leather
This leather undergoes tanning using chemicals. This is what you would choose for a home decor project like covering your sofa or car seats.
Brain tanned leather
This is called so because it uses extracts from the brains of dead animals for tanning. The process makes the leather very soft and washable.
Synthetic Tanned Leather
This leather undergoes a process that uses aromatic polymers.
Classification of leather based on the treatments on its surface
Aniline leather (Unfinished leather)
This is leather that retains the natural grains of the original – it is dyed with soluble dyes that are clear and transparent. You can see leather in its natural state – no opaque topcoat of paints. This is the softest of all leathers and the most comfortable and very supple.
Sometimes Aniline leather will come with the extra top treatment of oil and/or wax effects.
It absorbs water and anything easily and it is very difficult to remove stains from this kind of leather and just try using your nails on it if you dare – you will leave a mark.
An aniline leather which is just tanned (no treatment whatsoever) is called the Crust leather
Aniline leather with a brushed or buffed surface is called Nubuck / buffed or stonewashed leather. The texture of this leather is almost like velvet or like the surface of a billiard’s table. This leather is very soft and very fragile. It can get damaged with water spillage.
Semi Aniline leather
This is a leather with a light coat of paint over it. This extra coat prevents stains without compromising the natural grains. Because of this it does not absorbs water easily. This leather is also soft, though not as soft as Aniline leather.
This is usually chrome tanned leather buffed and then given a heavy topcoat which masks the whole grain of leather. Also called Pigment coated /protected leather
It is not soft but because of the heavy layer of paint it is the most durable. The whole top surface is sanded to remove any imperfection and then artificial grain marks are added, then it is painted. This means – No water /stain absorption, no scratch marks, no fading.
Sometimes two coats of dyes are applied on the surface of the leather and then rubbed off to create an attractive rub off leather. This leather is used to make shoes.
Bicast leather has a laminated surface and looks shiny (read plastic looking). This is a leather that has a very thin plastic-like coating on top of it; this is done to make it more strong and hard-wearing.
This lamination is usually done on a very thin piece of leather (split leather). For constant and heavy use this leather is good, as maintaining this one is easy because of the protective surface( Polyurethane). But it does not have the look of genuine leather.
For home decor projects this leather is in high demand, because of the sheen on the surface. But when it comes to making clothing like jackets or even bags and other accessories, you may not think it suitable or desirable.
This is very soft leather made from unsplit sheep/lambskin/kid-skin. It is a much-in-demand leather for making clothes and gloves.
Classification of leather, based on surface look
Suede is a material made from the underside of sheep or other animals like goat. The flesh side of the (split hide) material is thoroughly sanded to get a soft velvety texture. The result is a material which is beautifully soft with a nap and is very durable. It is a favourite for making shoes.
These are leather treated in different ways to get a beautiful texture. In hand-rubbed antiqued leather there is a mellowed look with lots of crushing, shrinking – to develop that special patina you get with usage. Pull-up leather has a silky wax topcoat which stretches giving it an antiquated look.
In glazed leather, a polished look is achieved. Patent leather is a leather with a high gloss finish.
This leather has a pearl like luster.
Patent finished leather
This type of leather has a plasticky enamel type treatment done on its surface.
In this leather, patterns are made on the surface. Sometimes grain pattern of other leather like that of a crocodile is made on other inexpensive leather surfaces. This is called grain embossed leather.
Check out a related post on How to buy leather – 15 questions to ask; properly caring for leather – 10 FAQ answered ; Sewing with Leather on a sewing machine – tips ; How to hand sew leather; 30 tools and supplies needed to hand sew leather
References : http://www.hancockandmoore.com/resources/HM_LeatherGlossary.pdf ; http://www.leathersmithe.com/leather-terms.html