Whether it’s the latest Zegna sneaker drop or that fancy Hermès bag you’ve been drooling over, leather always manages to find its way on to the materials list of many a luxury item. It’s no surprise how one of the oldest textiles around manages to retain its upscale appeal; quality leather is always luxurious to the touch. There’s calf, shell cordovan, ostrich, buffalo, and a myriad other leather types, but leather grades go beyond the type of animal it came from.
It’s easy to get lost in the terminology used in textiles, and the definition of leather can be deceptively singular at first glance. To the neophyte, all it takes is for the label to read “real leather” for one to be convinced. In truth, there is a distinction to be made with leather that leans heavily towards how it was produced. Leather grades are regulated, so there is little to no room for ambiguity or misinterpretation. Here are the various grades of leather you’ll find common in your favourite branded goods.
This is as “pure” as leather gets. Full grain leather refers to the entire thickness of the hide being used, resulting in greater strength and durability. Depending on the individual animal, this grade of leather may sport superficial imperfections like bug bites and scars. You’d normally find full-grain leather used on goods that see high use or are prone to wear and tear.
Certain manufacturers prefer cuts of leather that have a more uniform appearance – this is where top-grain leather comes in. With top-grain, the upper most layer (split layer) is removed. Not only does this do away with most imperfections, it also makes the leather thinner and easier to work with. A finishing layer is also typically applied, making top-grain more stain-resistant than full-grain.
An easy way of understanding roughout is to look at it as a “reverse leather”. With most leather types, the grain side is usually the one that gets presented. Roughout flips this over by presenting the flesh side of the leather instead. Roughout tends to have a lot of character due to its texture and sometimes comes waxed for an additional layer of protection against the elements. As it is still technically full-grain, roughout is also prized for its durability.
While often confused with rough out, the two couldn’t be more dissimilar. Suede leather is formed from split leather and is sanded down to the appropriate thickness and feel. This creates a soft, velvety nap that is fuzzy to the touch. While suede is always pretty to behold, it fares poorly in wet conditions due its sponge-like nature. If you’ve got a pair of suede loafers that you’d like to wear more often, be sure to hit them with a water-proofing spray first!
Corrected grain/“genuine” leather
For cuts of leather that possess a high number of surface imperfections, heavy buffing and sanding is usually employed. While successful, it does come at the cost of severely reducing the thickness of the leather and its durability. A grain pattern is then impressed upon the leather to give it more natural appearance. Corrected grain leather also tends to be given a thick coat of finishing which results in a plastic-like feel.
After cutting, leftover scraps of leather are gathered and shredded to a pulp-like state before being bonded together with polyurethane or latex. Like corrected grain leather, an artificial grain is used for aesthetic purposes. While it may be low-cost, it’s also practically water-proof and highly stain-resistant. This makes it a great choice for upholstering furniture and other more commercial uses.