If you’re going to spend some money, you should know what you’re buying. First, let’s look at the most important material: the leather.
This is a truly unique material and although many leather substitutes have and will be invented so far none of them match the combination of properties that leather has. Leather is flexible, yet strong and very durable. It can be moulded. It is breathable. No two hides are alike. I treat my leather with respect and try to use every last bit of each hide.
So, what do you need to know about a leather item before you buy it? My advice is to look at the tanning and the grade:
There are two main ways in which leather is tanned. Vegetable tanning is a more traditional method that uses tannin from plant extracts and is famous for producing leathers that develop a “patina” with use. This tanning method is slow, complex and expensive, producing firmer leathers that mark and stain quite easily and that tend to have a more limited range of natural, warm colours and tones. Chrome tanning is a faster, cheaper method that uses chromium salts. This method tends to produce softer leathers of all colours and tones that can be highly resistant to marking and staining.
I only use vegetable-tanned leather. This is simply because I prefer the way this leather looks, feels, smells and ages. I’m also drawn to the older methods over newer ones. Although it is viewed as more traditional, even vegetable tanning has an environmental impact and so it is important to source from countries/tanneries where stricter regulations are in place. The cowhide that I have chosen for my work is Italian. In the future I will be adding some leathers tanned in the UK.
There are four confusingly named grades of leather that you need to know about if you’re looking to buy leather goods. Here they are ranked best to worst:
Full grain leather: the very best grade of leather that includes all of the fibres up to the skin’s surface, which is the strongest part. Marks and scars that were on the animal show on the leather. In the right hands this kind of leather ages beautifully and can easily last a lifetime or longer.
Top grain leather: this grade of leather excludes the very surface of the skin. This allows a more uniform finish to be applied to the leather without any of the natural characteristics of the animal showing through. Top grain is still quite strong but not nearly as strong as full grain and it won’t look better with age.
Genuine leather: yes, that’s right – the little label you’ve been seeing that says “genuine leather” is actually indicating some of the worst leather you can buy. This leather is usually the layer that lies underneath the strong stuff near the skin’s surface. A finish is applied to make it look like decent leather but it lacks the strength of the two grades above and will not last anywhere near as long.
Bonded leather: it’s hard to actually call this one leather. This is basically cow cardboard. Scraps of leather are mangled up into a pulp and coated with an artificial “grain” made of plastic. It won’t take long for this to split and tear.
I only use full grain leather. It has all the properties that I would want in a wallet/strap/belt/bag etc. I build things to last a long time and I want them to look better and better with age so there really is no alternative to full grain. We all have our little skin markings, wrinkles and scars and so do cows. I believe that stripping these off leather only distances us from what the material really is and that is not the way to go when animals are involved. Instead, embrace the fact that this part of the animal has not been wasted; it will be treasured for decades. Don’t see the marks and scars as a blemish but instead as a hallmark of the quality of leather you have just bought. Feel it, smell it, cherish it. You’re going to have it for a very long time.