20 Different types of leather

Who does not love leather! ; Who does not know 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 How to recognize good leather from the fake.

what is leather

What is leather? What is it made of ?

Basically leather is the skin of animals after it is treated to many processes that refines it and beautifies 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

  1. Tanning process
  2. Type of hide
  3. Location of the cut
  4. Thickness of the leather.

Classification of leather by where it is taken from. 

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 goat skin 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 

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. Where as Cowhide is taken from a fully grown cow. This is also used extensively. 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.

Leather from Sheep

Hide taken from sheep and lamb give you a grained and fine leather.

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”. 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)

If you are new to sewing with leather it is better to start with cow skin (calfskin) or lambskin.

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.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; 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. It is also referred as Top-grain leather. 

Corrected Grain Leather

Here leather surface is readied  by sanding to remove imperfections and finishing the hide. It is not as good as the full grain one, but it is good enough. 

Genuine leather 

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 it’s color is usually achieved by  spray painting  the surface of the leather but to an uneducated eye it looks quite high grade and the original leather.

This third grade leather is often passed off as the real high grade leather, most often. But the buyer would soon learn  after it ages and looks worn and not so good unlike the leather which is high grade. 

Split leather

This is leather that is split from the skin of the hide. 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 genuine leather-so look out)

Bonded leather

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 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 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 the process of tanning 

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 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

This is a leather  which retains the natural grains of the original – it is dyed with soluble dyes which are clear and transparent. You can see leather in its natural state – no opaque top coat of paints. This is the softest of all leathers and the most comfortable

Some times Aniline leather will come with 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

Nubuck 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. 

Corrected /Pigmented 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. 

Sometimes two coats of dyes are applied on the surface of leather and then rubbed off to create an attractive rub off leather.This leather is used to make shoes.

Bicast Leather

Bicast leather has a laminated surface and looks shiny (read plastic looking).This is a leather which 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


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.

Antiqued /Glazed /Matte Leather 

These are leather treated in different ways to get beautiful texture. In antiqued leather there is a mellowed look with lots of crushing, shrinking. In glazed leather a polished look is achieved. Patent leather is a leather with a high gloss finish

Embossed leather 

In this patterns are made on the leather surface. Sometimes grain pattern of other leather like that of crocodile is made on other inexpensive leather surface.

Check out a related post on properly caring for leather – 10 FAQ answered ; Sewing with Leather – tips ; 30 tools and supplies needed to hand sew leather

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Precautions to take when buying leather

  • Ensure that the leather is without imperfections; The natural hide is bound to have scratches etc. But you do not want it on your leather piece. 
  • Ensure the leather feels supple when you touch it and not brittle or hard.
  • Ensure the leather smells good. Good natural smell is a quality of high grade leather.A plasticky smell is a sign of low quality leather
  • Sometimes when you are buying leather products manufacturers trick you by making parts of the product in low quality leather – so be sure to check it inside out ( like the back of a sofa)

You have to know the frequency of use and the type of usage the leather will be subjected to . For eg. Buying top grade leather with an Aniline leather treatment for a frequently used bar stool is asking for trouble. For this kind of frequent usage choose a   pigmented leather with a polished surface. If something spills a swift wipe will clean it up.

Even the connoisseur gets duped into buying low grade leather; so being extra vigilant when buying leather is a necessity. This care is necessary to get good leather which will last a long time and is worth the money you spent on it, but that doesnot guarantee anything as you have seen

Further reading : http://www.leathersmithe.com/leather-terms.html

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