A month or so ago Valetmag.com did a piece titled The Essential Leather Glossary.
I used to really enjoy Valet, but unfortunately over the past year it has become so sponsor driven that it’s almost devoid of any product-neutral content. Valet is still worth keeping on (or adding to) your favourites menu though, it’s useful for trend spotting, and Valet does a decent job curating publications like GQ, Esquire and other more mainstream medias that #menswear snobs might not otherwise bother with.
So to Valet’s credit I thought the leather glossary was a good idea. A lot of terms get thrown around in the blogosphere, and not everyone is familiar with the nomenclature. But #menswear enthusiast or not, everyone appreciates leather goods. Unfortunately not all “leather” is created equal, and the waters are further muddied by a myriad of terms, grades and styles that can and do mislead unsuspecting consumers.
So while Valet’s Essential Leather Glossary was a good start I thought I’d lean on Wikipedia and Google to flush the list out a little.
Sourcing your next leather belt, boots or sofa is really not that much different than any other product: a deal too good to be true, likely is. Products made out of full grain leather have fixed material costs that can’t be avoided. If you’re spending less than $200 on a pair or shoes, or say $50 bucks on a belt, you aren’t getting “real” leather. It’s like they teach us in 1L - caveat emptor.
[Above is a Tommy Hilifiger belt I got years ago. It’s aged nicely.]
Think those shoes or wallet you just bought that are stamped “genuine leather” are made entirely of leather? Wrong. Although I have no idea who investigates or enforces clothing labeling practices, it’s worth knowing that manufacturers of leather articles are “allowed” to construct a product that is traded as “genuine leather” even though it contains some non-leather components, provided the incorporation on non-leather materials does not exceed specific levels.
For example the European Commission Directive 94/11 on “footwear labeling” states that the upper, lining, or sole of a shoe can be labelled “genuine leather” so long as 80% of the surface area is in fact made of leather. If the standard in Europe is 80%, dare I speculate what the standard is in China?
Ever have a belt or watch strap split open on you, revealing a gooey or foamy interior? Yet that same article was stamped “leather”, “genuine leather” or “real leather”? I’ve included a couple photos in this post of a watch strap and belt I own, both stampled “genuine leather” and in both cases you can see where they will, or have, split apart.
So long as the outer layer, and lining of the belt/strap are made of leather, a manufacturer can fill the space between these two strips with other materials provided “no other materials compromise more than 50% of the surface area”, and still call their product “genuine leather”. Confusing eh? I haven’t investigated further to determine how surface area is calculated, and it’s really beside the point: when purchasing leather products trust your instincts, and research the brands, because you sure as hell can’t trust labels.
Bridle Leather (very good) -Vegetable tanned cowhide used for making equestrian equipment. Bridle leather refers to the way that a piece of leather (full grain cow hide) is finished at the tannery. Bridle leather has both the flesh and grain side of the leather stuffed with greases and finished with wax. Because this is a labour intensive and expensive process only the best grades of leather are selected for this treatment. Bridle leather is also made in comparatively fewer tanneries.
Full Grain Leather - Leather that has not been corrected in any way with sanding or buffing, beyond the original hair removal. This allows the natural markings, imperfections and character of the leather to show through. The grain remains allowing the fiber strength and durability. The grain also has breathability, resulting in less moisture from prolonged contact. Rather than wearing out, it will develop a patina over time (see my Tommy Hilfiger belt above for example). High quality leather furniture and footwear are often made from full-grain leather. Because full grain leathers must be cleaner hides to start with, full grain leather is always more expensive than its corrected or split cousins. Belts, watch straps, and most shoes should ideally be made of full grain leather.
Top-grain Leather - Is the most common type of leather used in high-end leather products, and is the second-highest quality (second to full grain that is). It has had the “split” layer separated away, making it thinner and more pliable than full-grain. Its surface has been sanded and a finish coat added which results in a colder, plastic feel with less breathability, and it will not develop a natural patina. So long as the finish remains unbroken, top grain leather has greater stain resistance than full grain leather.
Nubuck - A leather where the surface has been buffed and brushed to create a soft, velvety effect. While suede is created from the flesh (inner) side of a hide, nubuck is created using the grain (outer) side, making it stronger.
Oxblood - A dark, reddish-brown colour used to dye leather, and is used often for cordovan.
Patina - The rich, worn-in hue or lustre that develops in a quality piece of leather over time with age and wear.
Shearling - Sheepskin or lambskins that have been tanned with the wool intact (think nice leather slippers).
Vegetable Tanning - A method of hide tanning which utilizes materials from organic materials such as bark, instead of the traditional chemicals. Vegetable tanned leather is stiffer than traditionally-tanned leather, and gets darker from your body’s natural oils the more you use it. Bridle leather will typically be vegetable tanned.
Nappa - Soft, full grain leather made from unsplit sheep or lambskin. It is usually tanned with alum and chromium salts and dyed throughout the whole piece.
Glove Leather - Lambskin or other very soft, high quality leathers typically used for gloves. High-end English shoes will typically be lined with glove leather.
Calfskin - A high quality, fine grained leather made from the skins of young cattle.
Cordovan - Also known as “shell cordovan,” this leather is made from the firm shell portion of a horse (read: the butt). Cordovan has a characteristic finish, and is very durable.
Grain - A term used to describe the natural characteristics of an unprocessed hide, such as its texture, wrinkles and markings.
Suede - A finish (not technically a type of leather) where the top surface of the hide has been removed by abrasion and then brushed to create a soft, fuzzy feel. Also known as buffed leather, similar to nubuck.
Corrected-grain leather - Any leather that has had an artificial grain applied to its surface. Taking hides that do not meet the high standards for full grain use, the imperfections are sanded off and an artificial grain is impressed into the surface, and then dressed up with stains or dyes. Most corrected-grain leather is dyed with a strong pigment to further obscure any imperfections, and hide the corrections. The artificial grain embossed on the leather will often be “pebbled” or take on the appearance of an exotic skin like alligator.
Split leather - Leather created from the fibrous part of the hide left once the top-grain of the rawhide has been separated from the hide. During the splitting operation, the top-grain and drop split are separated. The drop split can be further split (thickness allowing) into a middle split and a flesh split. Split leather then has an artificial layer applied to the surface of the split and is embossed with a leather grain (bycast leather). Splits are also used to create suede. The strongest suedes are usually made from grain splits (that have the grain completely removed) or from the flesh split that has been shaved to the correct
Patent Leather - Leather where one surface has been covered with a flexible, waterproof film which has a lustrous mirror-like surface. This coating was formerly built up by the application of various varnishes and lacquers using linseed oil. The original process was developed in New Jersey, by inventor Seth Boyden in 1818. Today, patent leather
usually has a plastic coating. Not crispy.
Reconstituted leather - Composed of up to 90% leather fibres (often scrap from leather tanneries or leather workshops) bonded together with some form of plastic binder to create a look and feel similar to that of leather at a fraction of the cost. The resulting material is not as durable as real leather and is recommended for use only if the product will be used infrequently. This is shit.
Bonded Leather - Most often found in shitty upholstery. Bonded leather is generally a vinyl or polyurethane surface that contains about 17% leather fiber in its backing material. This plastic material is then stamped to give it a leather-like texture.
Bycast Leather - A split leather with a layer of polyurethane applied to the surface and then embossed. Bycast was originally made for the shoe industry and recently was adopted by the furniture industry. The original formula created by Bayer was strong but expensive. The result is a plastic material that is slightly stiffer but cheaper than top-grain leather but has a much more consistent texture. Because its surface is completely covered in plastic, is easier to clean and maintain. Your shitty co-worker’s shoes are probably made of bycast leather.