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The language of leather: A guide for style mavens

15th March 2021 Print

Leather is one of the most attractive, durable materials used in the fashion world, but if you’re new to buying leather clothes and accessories, it can also be intimidating. That’s because there are a lot of technical terms used to describe different types of leather. Still, you shouldn’t let that hold you back. 

If you want to ensure you’re buying top quality goods, you need to learn to speak the language of leather, and it’s not hard to understand once you learn the basics. These are some key terms you need to know to shop for leather like a pro.

Full Grain: The Best Of The Best

When purchasing any type of clothing that’s made out of leather, the key term that you want to look for is “full grain.” Full grain leather is the highest quality and refers to leather made from the whole, outer hide of the animal, and which retains any imperfections as part of the texture and unique quality of the leather. Top grain leather is similar to full grain, but instead of leaving the imperfections in place, top grain leather is sanded to apply an artificial grain.

Full grain leather is only used for clothing and accessories, not for upholstery, because of its high quality and cost. Some items commonly made from full grain leather include leather tote bags, leather jackets, and leather boots. You may also see high-end wallets and watch bands made from this type of leather.

Tanning Jobs: How Leather Is Treated

In addition to variations in the part of the hide used to make the leather, another major variable between leather products is how the leather is treated, including what tanning method is used. In recent years, vegetable tanned leather has become more popular because it is more sustainable than traditional, chemical tanning practices. Vegetable tanned leather is also more commonly used for clothing and accessories, including luggage, because it doesn’t significantly impact the leather’s color, while chemical, chromium dyes soften the leather and are used in upholstery and tend to give leather a greyish tone.

Dye And Finish Styles: A Touch Of Color

Leather products naturally vary in color based on the color of the animal’s hide, but sometimes leather goods makers want to deepen the material’s color or give it a unique hue. In such cases, they may use various dye or finish styles to modify it. 

For full grain leather, this is typically done using a semi-aniline or aniline dye process, which accentuates the natural material. However, this process can also make the leather more prone to showing stains, fading, or other marks, so it’s important to know how your leather is finished.

Words To Watch Out For

Full grain and top grain aren’t the most descriptive terms when it comes to describing leather styles, and this can present a particular challenge to first-time leather buyers because there are many other words used to describe leather that sound good but should really act as a warning signal. 

Genuine leather, for example, sounds like it would be high quality, but it is actually the third grade of leather, following after full and top grade; it also includes suede, which is the underside of the hide. In a similar vein, bonded leather sounds like it might refer to a particular finishing process, but actually means that the product is made from leather scraps.

The logic of leather may be somewhat confusing, but with a little research, you’ll soon be shopping like an expert – and looking like the style savvy person you are.