You Should Know: How to Buy Better Leather
In “You Should Know” we tackle the stuff you think you probably should know at this point (but probably don’t).
There was a day, before I started working in the world of design accessories, when I looked down at my “Genuine Leather” handbag and noticed that it just didn’t look like a hers. That classy lady who sat across from me on the N train had a bag that looked relaxed but kept its shape, a handle that looked firm but soft, and a charismatic patina that attested to years of service. Mine looked like a lump of dimpled plastic, honestly! What made the difference?
Fine leather represents an investment that should reward the wearer with years of great first impressions. Yet with so many gussied up fakes competing for our attention, and tags that say “Genuine Leather” sewn into veritable road kill, how can one choose leather that looks beautiful and ages with character?
Having worked as technical designer for companies like Coach and Baby Phat, I can now help you answer that question.
Use the following key details as a guide — it’s leather’s grain, flaws, and processing that reveal its true quality.
Go with the Grain
Look at your leather’s “grain” — the lines and pebbles that map across the surface; that’s the key to determining strength and character.
The very best leathers are full or top grain cowhides.
Full grain leathers are made from the outermost layer of hide with the natural grain and imperfections untreated. Because of this, they are the most durable and beautiful leathers.
Frye Vintage Stud Full Grain Leather Tan Shoulder Bag, $328
Timberland “Savin Hill” Full Grain Mid Boot, $180
Top grain leathers are also made from the sturdy outermost layer of hide, but imperfections are sanded away during the tanning process. These flat leathers are then stamped with a faux grain pattern.
The plus in this is that manufactures don’t have to cut around flaws, so they can obtain large panels at low cost, passing that saving on to you. So top grain leathers are cheaper while being nearly as durable as full grain.
HOBO ‘Mara’ Top Grain Crossbody Bag/Wallet, $138
Because of its inherent beauty and durability, cowhide, with its tightly packed, uniform grain, is perfect for making full grain and top grain leathers.
And cowhide ages well, developing that coveted patina that her bag had!
For example, a truly beautiful leather cowhide bag, the Leather Backpack by Lotuff, boasts “Hand-selected, tumbled, vegetable-tanned leather.”
Joie Cowhide Baird Suede Boots, $213
Exotics, like snake, alligator, crocodile, and ostrich, can be just as lovely, mind you, but pose a conundrum. Usually they are actually just stamped top leathers. This is because exotic animals are hard to obtain and yield small skins. So a real alligator bag can cost as much as a small condo, while the faux ‘gater you see in stores can appear overly regular or symmetrical. Still, a well-printed faux exotic can be fun and look great; just avoid perfect symmetries.
Henri Bendel Embossed Faux Snakeskin Print Leather Ruched Handbag/Purse, $119
Split Grain leathers come from the bottom layer of the hide and are often made into suede. If you like suede, it can be a charming, affordable alternative to full or top grain. Problems arise, however, when split grains are embossed with prints that imitate full grains. The process thins the leather, making it less resilient. It may also feel stiff from the embossed upper layer, or give off a whiff of chemical.
Steve Madden “Milaan’ Ankle Boot in Black Suede, $72
Sheep, Goat, Pig
Sheep and goat hides can be spotted by their looser grains, which make them weaker than cowhide. They can be super soft, and can make nice small leather goods. However, since they offer a less desirable face, they are often made into split grains and suedes.
Meanwhile pig hide has even fewer grains and larger pores is good for nothing but suede.
G & F Women’s Washable Suede Pigskin Leather Garden Gloves, $16
Finally, the only leather less desirable than pig is bonded leather, a Frankenstein product made from ground up glued scraps of leftovers; it is, essentially garbage.
A Few Shopping Tips
Check For Flaws
So you’re holding a full grain cowhide bag and you want to make sure it’s perfect before you carry it to the register? Here’s what to look for:
First, keep in mind that even high-end manufacturers cut corners by using varying grades of leather on different parts of a bag. So, while the front and back panels may be perfect, it pays to examine gussets, bottoms, and handles for consistency.
Streaks that look stretched or wrinkled and run at length through the leather are called fat lines. Panels with fat lines are often taken from the necks or underarms of aged cattle and can wear easily.
Dark freckles that look like dirt are probably insect bites: they do not affect the life of the leather, but mar its beauty.
Look also for scars from barbed wire or accidents. Sometimes left on full, top grain leather, these marks are considered flaws by some, character by others; it’s a matter of taste.
The best leathers are fully tanned (preserved) but minimally treated. Unfortunately, the best way to know how leather products are treated is to do your homework. Visit the manufacturer’s site. The best leather goods companies will brag proudly about their process!
Now that you know what I know, I hope to see you sitting across from me someday soon, admiring my bag while I admire yours!
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