How to buy Leather : 15 important questions to ask before you make the purchase

Genuine leather is timeless and beautiful. It will last forever if you use it properly. Because of this, it is much in demand as a material to make jackets, shoes, boots, bags, purses, dog collars, home furnishing, even outdoor tents. Original leather is costly and a person spending hard-earned money usually gets confused as to whether he has a fake item or the original – they can look almost identical. Another problem in buying leather is the variation in quality between different types of leather – which one to buy? 

Related post : Different types of leather ; How to buy good quality leather

Many people are fooled into buying low-quality leather. Bonded leather or imitation leather can look as good as leather and can fool anyone but the connoisseur. You may also be duped into buying products made of cheaper skins that are chemically treated to look better. Bonded leather is just reconstituted leather that is leather fibers bonded together with latex – not at all what you want in the name of leather.

Usage, appearance, and style of the product – they are all important but then so is the quality of the leather. So how do you measure all this against its quality?

Is it possible for you to recognize the quality of leather between the time you see something and the time you should make a buying decision?. You can. Go through the questions given below and surely, you will be able to or at least get a better understanding of what to buy.

 

What does the label say?

Challenge : The label says 100% leather, does it? 

This is the first thing you should check. Reading the fine print on the label of the leather product you are buying – if it says 100% leather it may as well be.

If it is marked delicate, you will have to treat it more carefully than you would with other kinds. So if you know you will be using it rough, you may not want to buy it in a leather marked delicate.

How does it look and feel when you touch it?

Challenge : It feels stiff, oily. 

Does it have a smooth surface – does it feel like you are running your hands over plastic. If it feels so, it may be corrected leather coated with inferior chemicals or even imitation leather in vinyl.

But it may also be patented leather – this will have a mirror-like waterproof film coated on one side (this is a resin coating/laminate). You can find this out by a detailed talk with your merchant. If he is any good he will be forthright about the type.

Even among good leather, a lower quality leather can feel stiff (because of the extra coating added to it). When you bend artificial leather it will not bend smoothly as does good leather – the fake leather may even crack. 

Good leather will have natural uneven patterns – synthetic ones will copy these patterns but it will be too symmetrical and clean – no patches or unevenness or natural-looking wrinkles like it will be on real skin.

What is the animal hide that is used to make the leather? & Where is the hide taken from?

Challenge : Concerned about the Animal skin your leather is made from. 

Cow leather, calf skin and lambskin are the most popular leather used. Lambskin is the most softest of the three, followed by calfskin and then cow leather. Cowskin leather is the most durable.

Other durable leather is made from hides of goat, Bison, Deer, Goat, pigskin, horse, and buffalo. Ostrich, alligator, snakeskin and even kangaroo are all used to make shoes, bags etc. You can say that non mammary leather is more costly and is used to make expensive products than mammary leather.  Even among one type of hide, the quality varies.

Leather jackets are usually made of lambskin and this leather is very expensive. Calfskin is the most preferred for making shoes. Upholstery leather made of steer hide has a nice grain pattern.

Pigskin, goatskin, and lambskin are thin and are used for making gloves and garments. Suede is a leather with a napped surface – it is great for projects that look really rugged. it is usually made of hide of goat or lamb. Goat suede is durable and strong. Lamb suede is softer.

Nubuck leather is similar high-quality leather made from top grain cattle leather – it is very durable and very expensive. 

Leather will be delicate if the hide is taken from the belly of the animal. There will also be different patterns depending on the position where the cut is taken from – Side, Back, shoulder, belly. This is an important question to ask when you are buying leather as raw material to work with.

Does it absorb water?

Challenge : Good leather absorbs water to a degree

Leather is skin and has pores and it will absorb water. If it is faux leather the water will flow off. If leather has many polishes done on the surface, the absorbency is less.

What is the type of the leather?

Challenge : Recognizing the different types of leather. 

Full Grain Leather is considered as the best of all leather – it is the natural form of leather made from hides that are not sanded or buffed. The strength of the original hide is retained in the leather. The advantage of full grain leather is that it is moisture-resistant, tear-resistant and lasts forever. It also has the natural texture of the hide. The downside is that it is expensive. 

Top Grain Leather has been sanded down to remove the imperfections on the natural hide. The leather is thinner, softer and malleable and flexible and less expensive. It also resists stains but is not as soft and supple as the full grain leather. Top grain leather is a good choice for making accessories, upholstery purposes etc without the high price tag of full grain leather. 

It may also be called corrected leather when it is chemically treated and coated. Corrected leather is less comfortable than the high-end top grain leather. It is used to make pigmented leather and semi – aniline leather.

Genuine Leather is the third-best choice when buying leather. It is made from the unwanted pieces of leather leftover after taking the top grain and full grain hide (split leather). It is inferior to full grain and top grain leather but still used a lot, because of its inexpensiveness. it can be made to look as nice as good leather but it will not last long. 

Bonded leather is the weakest as it is made from discarded pieces of leather which have been mixed and bonded to create the leather you have. It can disintegrate fast though initially, it will look as good as good quality leather.

Whether the leather is finished or unfinished ?

Challenge : You prefer a natural leather look (unfinished) or a refined elegant look (finished). 

Unfinished leather and finished leather is the next important categorization and one we should check carefully when buying leather. This is dependent on the way it is colored and finished.

Unfinished leather is also known as Aniline leather and finished leather is known as Semi Aniline leather among the professionals. Both are made from good rawhide – it is just the finishing that is different. 

Aniline leather is the best genuine leather with a completely natural appearance – it is made from thick full grain hides (the best) or top grain leather. This leather is soft supple and has a rich natural color. It may have the natural imperfections of animal hide if it is made of top grain leather. It has color through the thickness of the leather. The coloring looks natural and not processed like other types of leathers. It is very strong and quite durable. The surface is smooth and the leather is soft and supple. Aniline leather has a natural appearance without the gloss. If you are ready to treat the leather, delicate this leather is the best for you. 

The unfinished leather is also very expensive because of its luxurious feel and natural look.  A disadvantage is that it can stain easily because of the lack of protective layer on it- even water spills can stain this leather. The color also may fade if it is exposed to UV rays.

Semi-aniline is another good quality leather but this has a protective thin layer over the top grain – it could be a matt finish or glossy finish. This polyurethane coating prevents loss of dye and also leather becomes stain resistant. There is also a uniformity of coloring throughout the leather surface.

This finished leather is low maintenance – it is easy to clean. It doesn’t absorb moisture and doesn’t stain easily. This leather is best for things you will be using regularly. The disadvantage is that it doesn’t have the natural look or soft and suppleness of the unfinished leather, though. 

What kind of tanning is done on it? The process.

Challenge : Is the tannery maintaining quality standards.

Tanning is the process of turning animal skin into leather- starting from the removal of the hair from the skin, the cleaning of the carcass from the skin, the preservation of the leather, and then dyeing it. All of these processes affect the quality of the final leather.

The leather ought to come from a tannery which adheres to quality standards. The company which makes the leather should take care of many considerations before it is made usable.

If you decide to buy leather processed in a reputed tannery which follows clean technology with  minimum environmental impact, good for you and good for the world

What kind of dyeing is done on the leather

Challenge : Healthy or not. 

Chrome tanned leather is durable; Vegetable tanned leather is healthier and natural.

Chrome tanned leather will have a chemical smell, because of the chemicals used. But it is the most used leather for all kinds of projects – making bags, upholstery, clothing. This kind of tanning process uses chromium salts and tanning liquors for the process and is quite devastating to the environment and may cause skin allergies. But most of the products in the markets today are tanned this way because it is cheaper. Another advantage is that leather is protected from water, heat and humidity with this method. 

Vegetable-tanned cowhide leather is the most preferred leather by all leather artists, for crafting – but it is a little stiffer than chrome tanned leather.Vegetable tanned leather is high maintenance but is eco friendly. It is usually tanned with natural ingredients and is not harmful to skin. It also ages well. 

Oil-tanned leather is water-resistant because of the oil and wax applied after vegetable tanning, so it is very much used for making shoes, bags, hats, aprons etc. You may also want to buy Rawhide which is leather which is not dyed.

You need to look for crock free leather – which is leather treated to prevent color from rubbing off.

What is the thickness of the leather?

Challenge : Too thick that it cracks when bend; too thin that it is fake or it is too delicate and breaks. 

Leather thickness can be dependent on the product. Leather thickness is appreciated in Shoes – it needs to be thick to maintain its structure. Boots will have more thick leather than shoes. Belts also will be made of thick leather. But bags and wallets are made of thin leather. Thick leather lacks flexibility but makes it up with durability. Thin leather will tear soon.

If the leather is too thin it may a mix of leather and synthetic.

The thickness of leather has not much to do about the flexibility of the leather and its feel and suppleness. For that, you will have to look for the term leather temper.

What is the flexibility and feel of the leather.

Challenge : Supple or Stiff; which is preferred?

Leather may get stiff which is one disadvantage some of the varieties have, especially, when the weather is cold. Boardy is the name given to stiff inflexible leather.

The feel and vulnerability of the leather is termed as temper – you may want to buy soft leather for clothing; semi-soft for bags, purses; semi-stiff for shoes and some bags; Stiff for belts and boots and straps.

How does it look ? The grain of the leather

Challenge : For all of you, with the technology available at present, the grain you see on your leather product may be a print or The leather can look plasticky.

Grain of the leather refers to the outer layer of the animal’s skin- in its natural state it will have many cuts, scars, scratches and other imperfections and faults, just like our skin do. It is also very strong, and breathable, the way it is. The presence of grain on leather is indicative of good quality fine leather.

The best leather will need little or no treatment. You want to find leather that shows the grain variations. You should also be able to see and feel fat wrinkles where the hide naturally covered fatty areas of the animal. Therefore, when choosing leather, look for something that looks natural. You should also get that natural leather smell and it should feel soft and supple.

According to the type of grain it has there are top grain leather and the full grain leather. As Full grain is the leather made from the outer part of the animal’s skin it has that special natural looking markings that you expect on the skin. As top grain leather is sanded the natural grains and defects are absent. Suede has a napped look.

One way to know is does the leather look too perfect. Leather is skin and skin is never perfect  – it will have slight imperfections in the size of the pores, small wrinkles etc. On the fake leather, these imperfections are absent as it will be machine made and set. The fake leather will have a set pattern, an impossible regularity about it.

Another way to look for is a too plastic look. 

Fake leather can look a lot like real leather. You will have to be extra vigilant not to be duped. Remember, ruggedness, defects are all your indications. 

Where is it made?

Challenge : No standards followed in production in the country of origin. 

The place where it is originally from can have a bearing on the quality of the leather. Leather from Europe is considered the best – heard of Italian leather?

If it is made in Asian countries like India some may consider it of inferior quality. But what many people do not know is that Leather from Asian countries forms a big percentage of leather goods available in the world.  

How is the stitching on it ?

Challenge : Inferior work and substandard hardware used. 

Bad quality leather products will not have good quality stitching. They will have stitching done with thin threads. If the product you have is top stitched neatly with a good quality top thread that is one check in its favor.

Does it smell odd?

Challenge : Smells rotten or lingering smell of chemicals. 

If the leather you have smells bad in any way – the smell of chemicals is the usual bad smell. It could smell bad in other ways too. This indicates inferior quality.

How much does the leather cost?

Challenge : Buying price too low for good quality leather. 

If you are buying leather as a material it will be priced by the square foot.

If something is priced at a discount or an unbelievably low price you can doubt that it is genuine leather. It may be imitation leather made of vinyl or bonded leather made of discarded bits of waste leather. Genuine leather is costly and there is no way that a craftsman will reduce the price and sell at a discount.

Usually, the cost of a leather product is indicative of its quality, as with any other product. But that is not the only indicator, of course. A careful analysis of the above given factors is a necessity not an option when buying leather products.

Precautions to take when buying leather

  • Ensure that the leather is without major imperfections – scratches and insect bites, hump holes etc ; The natural hide is bound to have these subtly. But you do not want it very pronounced 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 does not guarantee anything as you have seen.

Related posts : How to sew leather on a sewing machine ; How to hand sew leather; 30 tools used to hand sew leather ; How to clean leather.

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