Leather is defined as a material made from the skin of an animal by tanning or a similar process.
But, there are plenty of different types and treatments which mean while the word is the same, the product really isn’t !
We’ve put this article together to tell you a little about the different types of leathers, how they are made, and a bit of jargon busting, as well as telling you all about the leathers we choose to use, and why.
What is tanning? It’s the process of treating and preserving the animal skin, to produce the durable and workable product we know and love. Treated with tannins (from which the name was coined), or chemicals to preserve the hide, the skin is permanently altered to make it more durable. The end product will vary greatly depending on the type of tanning applied.
Traditionally oak bark and differing leaves were used; the use of a chromium (III) solution was adopted by tanners during the Industrial Revolution.
Vegetable tanning uses tannins, a naturally occurring chemical which is found in the bark and leaves of many plants. Hides that have been stretched on frames are immersed for several weeks in vats of increasing concentrations of tannin. Vegetable-tanned hide is not very flexible. It is used for luggage, furniture, footwear, belts, and other clothing accessories.
Chromium(III) sulfate has long been regarded as the most efficient and effective tanning agent. Chrome tanning is faster than vegetable tanning (less than a day for this part of the process) and produces a stretchable leather which is excellent for use in handbags and garments. Chromium (III) itself is considered non-toxic, however other Chromium compounds are, and so can cause a risk of pollution if the waste is not suitably processed.
We aim for Vegetable Tanned as much as possible; minimizing use of chemicals, for an ultimately biodegradable product. Also we’re big fans of the beautiful variegated and utterly unique finish that comes with veg tanning - each hide tells a story and you can trace the life of the animal along it’s marks, scars and spots - resulting in a completely unique piece; what’s more is how vegetable tanned leather wears incredibly kindly with its owner, taking on a new life and personality, through the marks, scars and spots added with each use.
In addition, we always and only buy our leather from Leather Working Group certified tanneries. The LWG is an international not for profit focused on sustainability, aiming to improve the impact on the environment and driving environmental best practice within all sections of the leather industry.
Types of Leather
The best leather money can buy. It’s the full thickness of the skin; the toughest outer layer, it’s a durable, breathable, sturdy leather, with a more natural surface finish, one which preserves the top layer, and the unique grain, irregularities and skin imperfections of the animal. Full grain leather will give you a long lasting, breathable, product - this is the kind of leather which over time develops its own particular patina, characteristic of use, age, and personality.
We use vegetable tanned full grain leather for almost all of our products, as they can vary widely. We chose a beautifully supple full grain for our handbags, as well as a solid and supportive full grain for our Classic Belts. Selected for it’s natural character, we love the textured finish and the knowledge that each piece will be in it’s own way, a complete one off.
The next best thing to Full Grain, Top Grain will have had the very top surface removed by sanding & buffing, resulting in a thinner, more malleable leather, which does retain plenty of the natural grain and surface, but which has a more consistent colour and greater resistance to stains.
We use these for our soft italian roam range, including for example our wristlets and travel pouches - for more solid colours which still retain the natural grain of the leather, pliancy, and soft, supple touch.
One hide has the grain side split off for another use, and the remaining surface is buffed, sanded and coated. The pigmentation or coating varies, often a grain pattern will be embossed (sometimes called “Corrected Grain”), or simply a smooth solid colour finish will be applied - as in our Chroma range, which we selected for it’s bold colours and smooth finish yet, yet the leather is workable and affordable.
While this thinner leather will not give such a long-lasting product, the coating stage gives way for a huge range of colours and finishes. The leather has a consistent finish, free from imperfections, and the final product is more resistant stains and marks.
Bonded or Recycled Leather
Made from scraps of leathers and textiles, shredded to a pulp and reconstituted with latex, rubbers, polyurethane, into a usable sheet. It’s not something we use. Although cheaper than the leathers described above, the ratio of chemicals to leather used varies greatly (often less than 15% leather) and the product has a very short life span. While we keep recycling and impact on the environment very much in mind, to us this seems like a false recycling, as it introduces more chemicals and ultimately more energy waste.
All of the above!
The problem here is we can use the term ‘real leather’ to describe our top quality, full grain, vegetable tanned leather belts, which last a lifetime, just like another manufacturer can use the same term to describe a belt which is up to 90% latex/polyurethane and will barely last you five minutes!
Firm, durable and thick yet malleable and flexible, produces a structured springyness in the leather. We use shoulders for most of our belts and bags.
Cut from the length of the middle, toward the spine of the animal, the compact fibres produce a highly versatile, and quality leather
Tail end of the cow, running across hind legs, full of dense fibres so yields the thickest leather, ideal for hard-wearing belts.
This flexible area of the animal yields the softest and stretchiest cut, less robust but still versatile and useful, and it’s incredibly grainy texture has it’s charm.
To us, it’s important that the leather we use aligns with our values. We want to create long lasting, timeless products that are as unique as their wearer. Alongside this, we want to ensure we minimize our impact on the planet, and offer all this in a product that is affordable for all.
That’s why we go for full grain, vegetable tanned leather where possible. The leather is more expensive than lower quality options, but by using our super efficient manufacturing techniques, we can keep the prices low, and creating a product that lasts a lifetime is far more affordable than one you have to replace every couple of years. What’s more, when it eventually reaches the end of its life, it can biodegrade back into the cycle from where it came.
So we hope that helps you to understand a bit more about how leather goods can vary so greatly, and how to identify a higher quality product in the future. Please get in touch if you have any more questions about the leathers we use and why!