Learning About Leather

Have you ever bought a piece of furniture made of "real wood" just to find that it was actually a cheaply made mass of particle board?  Or maybe you saw wood grain and later realized that it was just a veneer?  Well, leather is a lot like wood.  There are four main grades of leather and unless you know what you're looking for, you can end up with a product that doesn't match your expectations.  We pride ourselves on our top quality leather and thought you might like to learn a little about what that means.

full grain leather

Bonded Leather
Much like particle board, bonded leather is the lowest quality leather available.  It's often made from a blend of real leather and some sort of polymer to bond it all together.  The ethics of labeling things made from bonded leather are pretty murky, as the word leather usually goes over better than the euphemistic pleather, but it's often the same thing.

We steer clear of bonded leather, so this one's from Wikipedia

Genuine Leather
The genuine in genuine leather refers to the fact that the leather is real and not a composite material.  What the name doesn't imply, is the practice of embossing and painting this structurally weak leather to replicate the look of higher quality products.  Genuine leather is missing the top grain, the part that gives leather its strength, breathability, and the unique ability to look better with wear.  Suede is a genuine leather product, and anything that carries a texture or pattern is probably a stamped genuine leather as well.  Smoother genuine leather products are usually finished with synthetic top coats and painted to look like higher quality pieces.


handmade leather
A thin layer of genuine leather, this tears easily and needs processing to be usable.
The genuine leather here is thick like suede.
If you find yourself thinking about buying a genuine leather jacket, purse, wallet, belt, or shoes, consider the fact that they'll look worse with wear, and that they'll need constant upkeep to look like the top or full grain leather they're meant to mimic. 

We produced a limited edition shoe for our friends at Neighbour, and by putting the rough side out, we achieved the appearance of suede.  We like the look and would love to play with this more in the future.
 

Top Grain Leather
As the name implies, top grain leather is a piece shaved from the outer surface of the skin.  It's also near the top of the leather quality spectrum, which makes it a better purchase.  Top grain leather is basically the wood veneer of the leather world.  It's shaved off the top and is usually fairly thin.  It's not as strong as full grain leather (for obvious reasons) and it is often "corrected" which usually means sanded and refinished to mask blemishes in the skin.  This refinishing leaves top grain leather sealed and unable to breath.  It also makes for a product that does not age the way that truly top quality leather can.




Full Grain Leather
This is the undisputed top of the leather world.  Full grain leather is just that - the full piece of leather in its raw and unedited form.  Full grain leather is infused with oils, which help to make it supple and durable, but it is not sealed, which leaves it able to breath.  While lower grade leathers are "painted", full grain leather is either left natural in color or stained, allowing the natural grain of the leather to show through.  This results in a product that maintains the ability to stretch and flex.  It also allows it to age gracefully, developing a natural patina that gets better with wear.

horween leather
Do you see the color popping where the leather is stretched?  That's the good stuff.
full grain horween leather

We use only full grain Horween leather.  Vegetable tanned in Chicago, our leather carries the distinction of being at the top of its class.  Like wood, high quality leather comes in many shades and with various markings throughout.  We order our leather by the full hide and take care to work around blemishes and portions that don't lend themselves well to shoe production.  We also work in small batches, carefully pairing pieces from the same hides to ensure the same color wear within a given pair. 

handmade leather shoes
custom fit leather shoes
handmade leather boot
A sneak peak at our new boot, scheduled for sale by fall, 2013

The next time you notice a bit of grain, or a variation in color, know that these are signs of a top quality leather.  Like other natural materials, each piece of leather is unique and tells a story of its own.


p.s.  Learn more about our leather and the legendary Horween Leather Company here.





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Photography by Erin Little , Ginny Sheller , Katherine Huysman .

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