Understanding Leather Grades

Understanding Leather Grades

Many leather terms are floating around out there. And with so many divergent definitions, it's almost impossible to know what any of them mean. When you invest in a luxury leather accessory, you would like to understand what you're purchasing. This brief guide is designed to help you navigate the murky waters of leather terminology. After you've read this, you can practically call yourself a leather expert! 

"Full Grain" Leather – The Gold Standard

Full grain leather is defined by the Tanners' Council of America's Dictionary of Leather Terminology as "the outer cut taken from the hair side of the hide from which nothing except the hair and associated epidermis have been removed." But what does this really mean?

Let's back up a few steps. Leather is a natural material. By the end of its useful life, a typical cow has had many things happen to its skin, including scratches, healed scars, brands and insect bites. Because these naturally occurring or artificially imposed "defects" are considered unsightly, except in the case of "distressed" leather, they need to be mechanically removed to make the hide serviceable. In fact, of all the raw material sold on the world market, as much as 85% of multiple surface blemishes need to be removed by a mechanical process called "correcting." Only the top 10% or so of hides are so pristine that they do not need to be corrected. These hides are "full grain," meaning that they are in their untouched, natural condition. These hides fetch a premium price in the market.

You can tell yourself if your leather is full grain by looking at it closely with either a magnifying glass or your naked eye. You will see a three-dimensional landscape containing peaks and valleys and the tiny "hair sacs" from which the hair follicles have been removed. 

"Corrected Grain" Leather

Leather with superficial scarring needs to be corrected to be made into an acceptable finished leather product, whether it's an accessory or a piece of furniture. Also called "snuffed" or "buffed" leather," corrected leather has had its top surface removed by an abrasion process. This is accomplished by lightly buffing the grain surface of the leather. The buffing machine uses a sanding drum covered with abrasive paper similar to sandpaper. The result is a clean, smooth grain surface. This light buffing also removes the top of the hair follicles.

Correcting the leather removes the hide's natural characteristics, razing its dynamic peaks to create a flat, uniform surface. Not very luxurious. So what do leather manufacturers do next? They emboss the hide with an artificial "leather" pattern to replace the natural texture that has been removed. This stiffens the hide and removes it one step further from its natural state. You can tell if your leather is embossed to see if its pattern appears regular or unnatural.

But few manufacturers refer to their leather as corrected because this implies there's something wrong with the leather that requires fixing. So how do they refer to this type of leather? Read on.

"Genuine" Leather

If you research this term, you will find some websites that describe this as the worst, or third, grade level of leather. This is not true! It is merely a term that manufacturers use to categorize products from real, rather than artificial - or PU or faux - leather. It can come from any animal, such as cow, pig, goat or sheep. The term doesn't reveal anything about the product other than it originated from an animal. It says nothing about quality.This means that lots of different kinds of leather can be called "genuine," including two products that are inferior to skin-surface leather: split leather and bonded leather.

According to the Dictionary of Leather Terminology, split leather describes "the under portion of a hide or skin, split into two or more thicknesses." In particular, cowhide is very thick and can yield three layers: a top, middle and bottom. The center cut is typically the "split" and is less expensive than the grain cut. Suede is the center split of cowhide or the bottom split of a goat, sheep, or lambskin.

We're pleased to inform you that the Federal Trade Commission requires that a split is marked as such and cannot be called "genuine leather" or "genuine cowhide." But watch out for unethical manufacturers.

On the other hand, bonded leather is a mix of both real and synthetic leather. It is made from mixing the scraps leftover from processing leather with a polyurethane fiber. It is then rolled together using adhesives to bond them onto a paper backing. It is usually embossed to resemble the texture of real leather. Most bonded leathers are composed of only 10 to 20 percent of genuine leather, but often it is marketed as "real" leather. Bonded leather can at times legally be called "genuine" leather."

There You Have It...

When purchasing your leather accessory or your sofa, trust your senses: does it look natural or unnatural? How does it feel and smell? Does it have an emotional appeal? If it's soft and buttery and looks, feels and smells like the real deal, it probably is.

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