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The Journal

Different Types of Leather

In the world of leather goods, it became essential to source out our livestock to provide us a source of protein from their meat and good quality leather from their hide. Most of our leather comes from animals that are bred and domesticated for butchery, dairy, and transportation.  What they all have in common is their leather qualities can be used for almost every purpose possible. But what makes most animals great for providing leather?

To understand why leather is a good material for clothing, upholstery, and accessories, we need to go over the fundamentals of leather. We will start with the layers of the leather hide. Then, teach about the five types of leather. Next, share with you the secrets of comparing real leather to fake leather. And finally, inform you about the different cuts in the animal hide that provides you a variety of quality leather.

What is Leather Hide?

From the animals, slaughterhouses butchered them for meat and their skin for leather goods. Cleaning their skin through curing and liming provides us with leather hide. Within the hide’s structure, there are four layers. Each layer provides a different quality of leather once it goes through the splitting process.

The top layer is known as the grain. The grain provides a thick layer of fibers and animal hairs. Underneath it is the lower grain and corium junction. Connected by the loose grain fibers, these two layers provide the same thickness as the grain.

Next is the corium. While it’s the thickest layer of the leather hide, the connective tissues are vulnerable to aging and sunlight. To prevent the damages, the corium goes through a thinning process to remove its moisture content to become genuine leather. Once it’s thin, it will need to be kept in a protective coating.

At the bottom of the hide is the flesh or the meat of the animal. While it carries no value in leather crafting, its muscle and fatty tissues provided a food source. During the butchering process, some of the flesh clings onto the hide. To trim it off, it will need to go into the curing process by being soaked into a saltwater brine for 16 hours. After that, the butchers will trim the remaining flesh off.

The Five Types of Leather

After splitting the leather hide, these layers will go through the tanning and crusting process. Depending on what part of the hide you are working with, their final product will inherit different qualities. In this list, we’ll go over the five types of leather.

Full-grain Leather

Starting with the highest quality of leather, you have full-grain leather. Full-grain leather has the most natural appearance of the animal hide by preserving the animal’s natural grain. As it ages, it becomes softer, browner, and flexible allowing it to breathe while in use. You can craft it using the whole grain layer from the hide.

Top-grain Leather

Top-grain leather has very similar characteristics to full-grain leather. What makes them different from each other is their appearance, the part of the hide it uses, and how they age. Top-grain leather has a smooth surface by sanding out the grain. It will need an extra layer of coating to protect its fibers from the lower grain attached to the corium junction. And over time, the coating causes the leather to crease.

Genuine Leather

Genuine leather is the lowest quality you can buy. Yet, it can utilize any part of the leather hide without leaving any waste. It is sometimes mistaken for high-quality leather due to the dye color and the stamped process. The easiest way you can tell the difference between full-grain leather and genuine leather is the thickness. Full-grain is a thicker cut because genuine leather is processed to be a thinner, cheaper leather.

Suede or split leather

Suede or split leather is the middle ground of leather quality. It has a smooth appearance similar to top-grain leather. It makes up for its weak durability with great flexibility, making suede leather perfect for premium-made leather shoes, clothing, and accessories.

Bonded Leather

Bonded leather is a combination of leather scraps and coated in a plastic coating or polyurethane resins. The difference between the coating is that plastic produces dioxins, a group of pollutants that cause cancer. And polyurethane resins are made of wood plant sap, making it a more durable and organic coating.

How to Differentiate Types of Leather

A real piece of leather fabric feels stiff and sturdy due to the thickness of the animal hide. Both full-grain and top-grain leather can become flexible and soften over time during its use. Compared to faux leather, it can feel similar to the real thing. However, fake leather is more fragile.

For most animal leathers, their coating leaves a naturally sweet and earthy scent. It originates from the vegetable tanning oils used during the tanning process. A piece of leather can smell very nauseating if its coating contains chemicals from a tanning process called chroming. Chroming surrounds fake leather in a heavy metal called chromium along with 48 chemicals.

Last but not least, leather can be told apart by its grain texture. Depending on the tanning and crusting process, it can give the leather different yet appealing appearances. For example, full-grain leather has a natural grainy texture which can tell how the animal lived in its last moments. And bonded leather can copy exotic animal skin and woven textiles by applying heat and pressure.

Types of Leather Cuts

When it comes to choosing leather, the hide will need to be ordered by cuts. Different kinds of leather cuts provide different yet unique characteristics for leather crafting. On the animal hide, there are a total of 10 leather cuts.

It all starts at the shoulder of the animal. A shoulder cut has leather that is firm yet malleable without the need to be split. With the double-shoulder, you can get both shoulders of the hide. The shoulders are great for making tooling leather for style customization.

Past the shoulder region is the prime area of the animal. The prime includes the spine, hind, and belly. Cutting from these areas is known as a bend cut. One bend cut is from one side of the hide where a double-bend cut is from both sides. The prime provides some of the best leather quality.

The belly can be cut separately from the bend cut hide. Depending on the animal’s weight, the belly cut provides a soft and stretchy piece of leather. A double-belly provides the full animal stomach hide. Its characteristics make it the least desirable leather, yet one of the least expensive leather cuts, making it affordable for leathercrafters and leather manufacturers.

At the very end of the hide is the butt. The thickest and the firmest leather comes from the hind legs. The cut from this part of the animal is known as the butt cut. The butt cut is trimming the hide from one hind leg. The double-butt will give both hind legs. Its thickness makes it perfect for heavy leather garments such as jackets, belts, and wrist accessories.

For an all-in-one package, a whole leather cut is available.  It includes all of the cuts from shoulder to butt with all the leather qualities. Splitting it in half gives a side cut provides half of the leather cuts with the same characteristics.

How to Care for Leather Goods

While leather is durable, it does have its weaknesses when it comes to taking care of it. A leather’s surface is weak against UV rays when under the sun for too long. Most leather products are coated in vegetable tanning oil. Heat applied to it can leave behind sunbleached stains. Leather can also lose some of its moisture content while in use. And leather isn’t durable against harsh cleaners or bleach.

Leather is very fragile when trying to keep it clean. To prevent these damages, use a damp microfiber cloth. Then, carefully apply your leather cleaner to the area you want to clean.  Make sure to use a gentle circular motion as you are wiping. Next, allow the leather to dry. Finally, to keep its moisture, spray some leather conditioner and use the same wiping method.

You can fix damages by using a leather repair kit or a set of sponges and water and oil-based leather paint dye. First, clean the area you want to repair on your leather. Then, allow the leather to dry before applying the color dye you want. Next, take a sponge and gently apply the paint to the area. Do not touch for 24 hours and allow it to dry in a vented space. Finally, lather it with leather wax to give restore water resistance.

Leather can rarely be clean throughout the year depending on the climate you live in. If you live in a region with hotter temperatures, the cleaning and repair process will need to be repeated 3-4 times a year and out of areas with lots of sunlight. For colder climates, the process will need to be repeated twice due to the leather being durable in cooler temperatures.