How Much Do You Really Know About The Leather Hanging In Your Closet?

Photographed By Corey Olson.
By Elena Wang

From household upholstery to sports equipment and staple boots, leather goods serve to not only clothe and shelter, but accessorize and amuse. Mention 100% genuine leather goods, though, and it narrows things down to what we consider to be luxury goods — expensive and high-quality investment pieces that look great and feel superior.

As it turns out, the high-end leather market is saturated with products whose luxury price tags far surpass their quality — but you probably already knew that. However, do you know how to spot a high-quality bag or shoe?

Here’s everything you need to know to be a discerning leather customer.

Tanning & Splitting
Leather is, technically speaking, tanned animal skin. Hide can be tanned and then split and finished into leathers of varying quality. There are two main methods of tanning the skin: vegetable tanning, the traditional slow-soaking of hides in a series of gentle vegetable liquors, and chrome tanning, which was invented in 1858 and involves tumbling the hide in drums with a chromium solution. More than 80% of the world’s leather is chrome-tanned. Tanneries can also employ combination tanning: chrome tanning followed by vegetable tanning.

Related: The History Of One Of Our Beloved Materials: Denim

Skin Splitting
Following leather tanning, the skin is split into three types of leather: Full-, top-, and split-grain.

Full-grain leather is the best type. It refers to the topmost layer of the skin, directly beneath the hair. The tightness of the grain renders leather moisture-resistant and extremely durable. This is the only type of leather that develops a patina.

These natural imperfections are the hallmark of great leather.

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Top-grain leather is thinner than full-grain and has been shaved down to remove the various blemishes characteristic of lower-quality hides. Because the processing also eliminates the strongest fibers of the hide, the strength and durability of top-grain leather is considerably reduced. It may also feel stiffer and slightly plasticky.

Split-grain leather works well for light-wear goods, because it's the stretchier, fuzzy under-layer of the hide. Watch out for this type though, as split-grain leather is often finished to mimic higher-quality leather in heavy-use goods like furniture. It develops a matte — rather than smooth — look and loses suppleness over time. It's not something you want to see happen to your pricey handbag.

Leather Finishing
Finally, each type of leather can be finished in a number of ways, like dyeing, turning it into nubuck (top-grain leather that is buffed) and suede (leather that's specially treated and is generally less expensive than nubuck), and adding pattern and texture.
Dyeing leather with transparent dyes is another process leading to a finished leather product. To identify the highest-quality leather, industry expert A.O. Avery advises looking for small blemishes. “These natural imperfections are the hallmark of great leather.”

Scars from scratches or bites create mesmerizing variations in color. The strong and supple texture comes from from the skin itself. The best leathers grow more beautiful with use and age, as they haven’t been chemically processed and their surface was not mechanically altered.

Related: The Different Types Of Sustainability & Why We Need Them Now
Photographed By Corey Olson.

European Leather
Italy leads the global leather industry, with 20% of the world’s output in finished leather goods. Italian leather is also sovereign in quality because its production units remain much smaller than those of other countries.

According to the European Commission, annual leather production has been dropping across the E.U. for more than a decade. More specifically, production in countries that traditionally dominated the E.U. leather industry — Italy, Spain, and France — has fallen while production in countries such as Belgium and Poland has risen. Most tanneries in the E.U. are small family businesses.

Production
The majority of leather goods — luxury ones included — are mass-produced and processed with chemicals. The natural grains and markings whose differences reveal the quality of the leather are often shaved down and sanded. What the consumer sees is an embossed pattern or a refinished surface. The highest quality leathers, by contrast, possess a beautiful patina and earthy fragrance. The lowest quality is known as bonded leather: Leather scraps are reconstituted to form a seamless piece of leather material that is less durable than fabric.

In fact, our lives are dominated by synthetic materials. For example, if you consider textiles in clothing, 65% of our clothing is made of synthetic fibers. Most synthetic fibers are polyester (about 70%), which eclipsed cotton in 2007 as the most commonly used fabric in our clothing. Further, if you consider the future of the textile industry, polyester is driving the growth in the global demand for textiles, indicating that the clothing of the future will increasingly be comprised of synthetic materials.

Leather is luxurious precisely because of its natural beauty and incomparable feel. This is what we believe we are getting when we devote substantial sums to goods that we intend to use, reuse, and, perhaps, even pass onto loved ones; for the most part, we are mistaken. But choose your leather carefully and you will have it for a very long time.

Next: The Lost Craft Of Care
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