Leather is a unique material that has been crafted for centuries and possibly even millennia based on different historical interpretations. Throughout history, man has found a vast array of uses for leather ranging from saddles for horses to clothes for ourselves. In more modern times, we have fashioned sports equipment and furniture out of leather. It is a versatile and durable material that has provided us with many advantages over the years, and there are many kinds of leather that offer different uses and benefits.
The grain is the top layer of leather that shows up just after the skin is removed. The fibers here are packed in very tightly, rendering the grain the sturdiest layer of leather. There are two forms of grain leather – full grain and top grain.
Full Grain Leather
Leather that has not been corrected in any way is called full grain leather. Without any correction, full-grain leather means that the whole grain is intact, including blemishes such as stretch marks, scars, and insect bites. Full-grain is the most expensive form of leather because it is considered the most durable and longest-lasting leather that money can buy. This is because the grain has the tightest and sturdiest fibers, making it the strongest layer of leather. The tightness of the fibers also helps to makes full grain leather the most water resistant, contributing to its reputation as a leather that you can truly use for life. In addition to these properties, full grain leather develops a patina which gives it a classic worn look that many consider to be more visually stunning than the other types.
Top Grain Leather
One step below full grain leather is top grain leather. This leather is corrected by sanding away the first few millimeters of the grain, taking away the visual imperfections that formed during the lifetime of the cow. This will give the leather a more uniform look which is desirable for some people and often used as the material for items such as wallets, purses, and jackets. While the appearance is more polished, it isn’t nearly as strong or durable as full grain leather. With the most solid layer taken away through the correction process, top grain leather is likely to break down far faster than any product made with full grain leather.
Aniline leathers are grain leathers, either top grain or full grain, that have been colored in vats of aniline dyes. This process allows the dye to permeate through the entire hide so that the chosen color is present throughout the entire piece of leather. In pure aniline leathers, no surface pigment or protective coating is applied, so the natural textures and blemishes will still show up on the grain, albeit with a new overall color. In some cases, hand finishes may be applied. Aniline leathers offer a more natural look, but due to the lack of a protective coating, they are more likely to suffer from staining or fading.
Semi-aniline leathers are dyed using the same process as aniline leathers, so they still benefit from pure color permeation. However, after they have been dyed, pigments are applied to the top surface of the hide to give a uniform color appearance across the entire piece of leather. Other unique finishes may also be applied to give an illusion of more aged leather or create specific designs. The final step in the process is the application of a protective coating that makes the leather resistant to the sun’s harmful rays and allows it to repel stains. There are many varieties of coating, allowing for different finishes such as matte or high gloss varieties.
There is for sure no right or wrong choice for you when it comes to choosing between aniline or semi-aniline leathers – it is based on personal preference. For someone that wants to keep a brand new, uniform look throughout the life of their product, semi-aniline is the way to go. Because of its protective coating, the colors will not fade or stain and the material will mostly keep its appearance for a long period of time. On the other hand, you may prefer something that will cultivate character as it ages, and for that you’d be wise to go with pure aniline leather. This will have a more customized look and will develop a patina as it reacts to sunlight, usage, and moisture. The main difference in quality will be based on whether you decide to go with top grain or full grain leather.
Once leather has been split off from the grain, there are several more types that aren’t quite as durable or as expensive as their grain counterparts. These are known as split leather and bonded leather.
Split leather refers to the process when the grain is separated from what is known as the corium. The corium has looser fibers and thus provides less strength and durability than the leathers made from the grain layer. Split leather is often used for products that don’t require a lifetime of usage such as cheaper shoes and wallets, upholstery, and coats. Split leather generally has a more uniform appearance than grain leather, but it doesn’t hold up quite as long due to the fact that its fibers are looser, and it is not very resistant to moisture. Still, it is considered a quite versatile leather because it can be processed in multiple ways and applied to many different designs. When used for clothing, split leather is better suited for trendy styles that may only be in fashion for a season or two, as it is generally only going to hold up for a few years. Grain leathers, on the other hand, are better for classic looks that will always be in style due to their durability and the patina that comes with age.
Bonded leather, also known as blended leather, is considered the worst form of leather. This is because it is not technically made from a solid layer. Instead, shredded bits of leather and filler are reconstituted and combined with a polyurethane coating and often embossed with a leather-like substance. This is neither 100% leather nor is it of particularly good quality. That is why it is considered cheap and used in low-cost products. You might find bonded leather in cheap furniture, shoes, wallets, and other accessories. It is often used in book bindings as well. This leather has the shortest life of any of the aforementioned products as well as the lowest level of durability. It is virtually incapable of handling even minor levels of moisture and will begin to crack and peel within a shorter amount of time if it is not frequently taken care of. There are uses for bonded leather, but there is no reason to pay a premium just because the label claims something is made of leather.
Checking to see if leather is top grain, full grain, split, or bonded is important when purchasing any leather product that you want to last. Each variety has its advantages and disadvantages as well as unique uses. If you are simply buying a book to read quickly and then keep stored away, there’s no reason to get a full grain binder. On the other hand, if you want a pair of dress shoes that will last you a decade or longer, you’ll want to save the money to spend on something made of top grain or full grain leather, as split leather will not provide the durability and strength that the others have to offer. Fortunately, you can now use your leather knowledge to make informed decisions when purchasing something made from this beautiful material.