Leather is a natural product being a type of material (not a fabric type) that is made from the hide of animals. As it is a natural product, you’ll find that it will vary in both color and texture from one animal hide to another. Leather is also susceptible to damage, especially from sunlight and moisture.
It is used in many different products, including clothing, footwear and upholstery. As leather is created from the skin of animals, there are many different grades and types of leather, and each type has its own unique properties.
Let’s look at the different grades of leather first.
How Is Leather Graded?
Currently leather is graded using terminology rather than a numbering or letter based system.
Full Grain Leather
Full grain leather is the highest quality leather available and it is made from the outermost layer of the hide, which has not been sanded, buffed or altered in any way. Because of this, full grain leather keeps all of the natural markings and grains of the original animal hide, which gives it its unique appearance.
Full grain leather is also the most durable type of leather, because it hasn’t been split. This makes it perfect for high-use items such as furniture and footwear, both of which take a lot of wear and tear.
That said, because full grain leather has not been altered in any way, it can be susceptible to staining and scratching.
Top Grain Leather
Top grain leather is made from the outermost layer of the hide, which is why it’s often considered to be the highest quality leather. This type of leather is very durable and resistant to wear, making it ideal for furniture and other upholstery.
Top grain leather is sanded and buffed, and often will have pigment added too, making it more expensive than other types of leather, because of its better quality.
If you’re looking for a high-quality leather that will last for years, top grain leather is an excellent choice.
While all leather can technically be classed as ‘split grain leather’, in that they are all split to separate the top most layer from the lower, inner layer of the hide, the most well known and easily recognised split grain leather is suede.
Split leather is split into thin sheets, which are then used to create a variety of products such as wallets, purses, and shoes. It can also be used to make car seats, upholstery, and other leather goods.
Split grain leather is generally less expensive than full-grain leather, and it has a more uniform appearance. However, it is also less durable and has a shorter lifespan. When cared for properly, split leather can last for many years.
The last grade for real leather is ‘genuine leather’ which is just another way of saying that the product is leather, it came from an animal hide. Genuine leather does not mean that the leather is of good quality, only that it is real and has no non-leather elements.
Which leads nicely onto bonded leathers!
Bonded leather, is also known as reconstituted leather or blended leather, and is a type of leather that is made from recycled leather fibers which are bonded together with polymers. The result material looks and feels like real leather but is cheaper to produce.
Fake (or faux) leather contains no leather at all. That doesn’t make it a bad thing, but I’ll explain more on fake leather further down!
How Is Leather Treated?
Before being suitable to use as a material, leather has to be treated, which lessens the chances of it decomposing. The four main steps are:
Once the skin is dried, it needs to be cured, and this is done with a salt bath or by keeping the hide at a very low temperature.
The hide is then tanned. This used to require ‘tannin’ hence it’s name but leather can also be tanned using chromium salts.
What Is Vegetable Tanned Leather?
Vegetable-tanned leather is leather which has been treated with tannins, which are naturally occurring chemicals found in plants. As the name suggests, vegetable-tanned leather is made using tannins extracted from plants, such as bark, wood, and leaves.
Vegetable-tanned leather is often used in high-end products, such as handbags and belts, because it looks better and ages well. However, it is important to note that vegetable-tanned leather is not waterproof, so it needs to be treated with care.
You can learn more here if you’d like more information on the full process of tanning leather – I’m a little squeamish about it.
Once leather has been through the tanning process, the last step is to apply a finishing to it. This can include:
What Is Pigmented Leather?
Pigmented leather is leather that has been treated with a pigment, or colorant. This helps to improve the appearance of the leather and can make it more resistant to staining.
Pigmented leather is available in a wide range of colors, from natural shades like black and brown to more unusual hues like blue and red. The pigmentation process can also be used to create unique patterns and designs on the surface of the leather.
What Is Aniline Leather?
Aniline leather is a type of leather that has been dyed with aniline dyes. These dyes penetrate the leather, giving it a deep, rich color. Aniline leather is often used for high-end leather goods, as it has a luxurious appearance and feel.
However, it is important to note that aniline leather is more susceptible to staining and fading than other types of leather. As such, it requires special care and cleaning products.
The Different Types Of Leather
Now that we’ve covered the grades of leather and some of the ways that leather is processed, lets move onto the different types of leather that you may want to work with:
- Cowhide leather
- Faux leather
- Lambskin leather
- Nubuck leather
- Suede leather
Cowhide leather is probably the most popular material for making furniture, clothing, and other leather goods.
It is made from the skin of cows and other bovines, and is characterized by its durability and resistance to wear and tear.
Cowhide leather is available in a variety of colors, including black, brown, and tan. It can be treated to make it water resistant or waterproof, and is often used to make products that will be exposed to the elements.
It is also a popular leather for creating ‘effects’. Below is a piece of cow leather that has been used to create a mock croc type effect.
Another popular way to treat cow leather is to make it look like ostrich as seen in the two photos below!
Cowhide leather is also popular for its strength and ability to stretch, making it an ideal choice for creating items that need to be both durable and flexible.
Faux leather, often referred to as fake leather, is a type of fabric that looks and feels a lot like leather but is made from various synthetic materials.
Unlike real leather, which is made from the skin of an animal, faux leather is vegan-friendly and usually more affordable. It is also more durable and easier to care for than real leather, which makes it a popular choice for upholstery, clothing, and accessories.
Faux leather can be made from a variety of materials, including polyurethane, PVC, and polyester, but the quality of the fabric varies greatly depending on the type of material used. For instance, PVC faux leather is the cheapest and least durable option, while polyurethane (pu leather) is more expensive but also much more realistic in terms of appearance and feel.
You’ll often find that faux leather is very realistic looking on the front, but the reverse has a knit fabric appearance, as seen in the images above.
Lambskin leather is one of the most durable and comfortable types of leather available. It is made from the skin of a lamb, which is then tanned and treated to create a soft, supple material.
Lambskin leather is often used in clothing and accessories from more expensive RTW wear brands due to its quality and more luxurious feel – it is usually more expensive than other types of leather.
Lambskin leather is often called ‘napa’ (along with leather from calves and baby goats).
Nubuck leather is another type of leather and has been sanded or buffed on the outside to create a velvety nap. It is made from the outermost layer of the hide, which is why it is more durable and resistant to staining than other types of leather.
Nubuck leather is often used in upholstery, footwear, and clothing because of its softness and unique texture but it can be tricky to care for. This is because the nap of nubuck leather can be easily damaged.
Suede is also a type of leather. It has a napped, velvety surface and is made from the flesh side of the hide, which has been buffed to create a soft nap.
Suede is usually more durable than other types of leather, but it is also more susceptible to staining and water damage. When suede gets wet, make sure to air dry it naturally before storing it in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight.
With proper care, suede can last for many years.
Alternative Leather Materials
While many people do still like to work with leather, by either using new hides or refashioning old leather thrift finds into new leather garments and accessories, there are many who prefer a more sustainable method.
And while it’s true that most faux or fake leathers are vegan friendly, they’re not necessarily better for the envrionment because of the amount of chemicals used in the process.
So, I’m also writing a complete article on alternative leather materials for anyone interested in learning more – stay tuned for that next month!
If you do have leather that you want to work with, make sure you have a sewing machine that can sew leather! You can then learn how to sew leather on a home sewing machine and how to fuse fabric to leather for a clean finish.
I’m currently working on a patchwork leather circle skirt, made from leather scraps, so stay tuned for that too.
Eve Tokens (aka The Creative Curator) is a fashion designer, creative pattern cutter and sewing pattern designer.
Eve graduated with a 2:1 in Fashion Design from the University of The Creative Arts in the UK, has a BTEC diploma in Creative Pattern Cutting, a Foundation Degree in Art & Design from Wimbledon College of Art and gained extensive experience in the fashion industry by interning and freelancing for London based fashion brands – Hardy Amies, Roland Mouret, Peter Pilotto and others.
As well as running her own small sustainable fashion brand, Eve has more than 25 years experience sewing and making clothes for herself and family members.