TYPES OF LEATHER
Not all leather is created equal and knowing what's good and what's bad can be difficult. This basic leather guide will help you begin to navigate your leather options.
First, it is important to understand that leather needs to be split into thin layers before it can be used. The quality of leather depends largely on which layer is used.
The outer layer is made with the most tightly woven fibers and is considerably more durable than the inner layer. The outer layer comes in two varieties: Full Grain and Top Grain. The inner layer is called Split Leather and is often labelled on products as "genuine leather". The inner layer is made with loosely woven fibers and is not durable.
THE TOP LAYER (FULL GRAIN & TOP GRAIN)
"Full Grain Leather" is leather that has not been buffed or treated in any way and therefore does not need to be re-surfaced. Full grain leather is extraordinarily breathable and durable. It also ages beautifully. While some natural blemishes may remain, certain types of full grain leather have few blemishes to begin with.
A prime example is calf leather. Calf leather rarely has blemishes and has the added benefit of being extraordinarily soft. The finest leather products in the world often use full grain calf leather.
Some articles online may suggest that full grain leather is stiffer than other types of leather. This is simply not true. The stiffness of leather is almost entirely attributed to the type of animal and the thickness of the leather. For example, full grain 5mm (very thick) cow leather may be very stiff, but full grain 1mm calf or sheep leather can be extremely soft.
"Top Grain Leather" is leather that has been buffed, treated, then re-surfaced in order to produce a perfectly uniform pattern or texture.
While the look of the leather may benefit from removing blemishes, the need to re-surface or re-coat the leather has its drawbacks. These drawbacks include the following:
Breathability is reduced
Durability is reduced
The leather looks less natural
The leather doesn't age as well
THE INNER LAYER ("GENUINE LEATHER")
"Genuine Leather" needs to be re-surfaced and therefore suffers from the same drawbacks as top grain leather. However, the main drawback of genuine leather is its extreme lack of durability due to it's loosely woven fibers.
To review, you can think of leather quality in three tiers:
Tier 1: Full Grain (Breathable, durable, ages well, retains natural look)
Tier 2: Top Grain (Moderate to high quality with a finished look, but lacks the benefits of full grain leather)
Tier 3: Genuine Leather (Breaks down quickly)
OTHER TYPES OF LEATHER YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT
Suede vs Nubuck
Suede comes from the inner layer ("genuine" leather) and has not been resurfaced in order to produce the natural inner surface nap effect. Suede is not durable.
Nubuck is a mix between full and top grain leather. It has been given a light sanding for a subtle nap effect and has not been resurfaced. Nubuck is very durable.
Bonded leather is the worst type of leather available. You can think of bonded leather like Chicken Nuggets: scrap pieces of leather fibers, mushed together, glued to a plastic backing, then embossed to look like leather. Bonded leather breaks down quickly and when it does it looks terrible.
Patent leather is simply leather with a high gloss finish.
Veg-tan leather has gone through a long vegetable-based tanning process. It has pros (environmentally friendly) and cons (stiff, limited colors). We may dive deeper into the characteristics of veg-tan leather in a different article specifically about leather tanning methods.
HOW TO SPOT GREAT LEATHER
So if you're in a store holding a leather product in your hands, how can you tell what type of leather it is if it's not labeled? Unfortunately it's not that easy because leather products have a wide array of finishes, some designed to look rough or natural and some designed to look almost too perfect. The grain pattern doesn't determine quality.
Your best guess is to simply look at the price. You typically get what you pay for when it comes to leather products up to a point. A $2000 Prada handbag or a $500 pair of Ferragamo flats are well beyond that point.
On the other end, leather shoes under $100 is not a good sign. $100 - $300 for leather shoes is the sweet spot in terms of value. Great quality flats and the like should be $100 - $200. Great quality boots and well constructed mens dress shoes should be $200 - $300.
When it comes to leather, the proof is in the pudding: great leather products perform better over time.