Have you ever walked through the apparel section at you local department store and seen an advertisement for genuine leather belts? Would it surprise you to find out that the advertised leather is probably not actual leather? Yep that's right. Technically they have real leather in them but by my classifications, they hardly stand up. So what are all the different types of leather and what do they mean?
There are generally 5 different types of leather that actually contain some amount of actual leather at the least. Before we get into those leather types lets first get an understanding of leather anatomy.
Leather is made up of 3 layers the grain, the corium and the flesh layers. The grain is the outer most layer of the leather and is made up of tightly packed collagen fibers. On a mammal this would be where the hair grew out of. The corium is the middle layer and is what makes up most of the leather. corium consists of loosely packed collagen fibers. Then there is the flesh which is where the muscle, tissue, and fat would be attached.
So now we can get into the different types which are full grain, top grain, (things get tricky here, I will explain in a bit) suede, genuine leather, split leather and bonded leather. There is also faux leather which doesn't contain any leather what so ever.
Full grain leather is the topmost layer of the leather. It is composed of the grain and the very top of the corium layer. Full grain leathers are the most sought after leathers. They are generally the highest quality, type of leather you can buy. All Shock and Awl leather goods are made with full grain leather. A possible downside to full grain leathers is that any scars the animal suffered or any brands will be visible. Some manufacturers will cut around these. Here at Shock and Awl Leatherwork we like to keep these as they add a touch of character to the leather and pay respect to the animal.
Top grain leather is composed of the grain and the corium layers but the top of the grain layer is sanded off to remove any imperfections like scars. Top grain leather is sometimes painted or wrapped in vinyl.
Here is where the trickery comes in. Technically genuine leather refers to suede but in my experience genuine leather is often a split leather. I have also seen bonded leather called genuine. Some shops refer to their leather as genuine leather because it sounds prestigious even if they are using a full or top grain leather. So at the end of the day genuine leather means something different to everyone. I try to keep my distance if something says genuine. for the remainder I will refrain from using the word genuine.
Suede is composed of the corium layer which is why it feels fuzzy (loosly packed collagen fibers). Suede has become very popular recently and is often used for shoes and lining for bags.
As far as quality is concerned full grain is the top of the line. Top grain and suede roughly mark the medium quality. These next leathers are all low or very low quality and essentially crap in my book. These are the leathers that often split, crack, and peel after a short time.
Split leather while being low quality is actually still leather. It is made by taking leather splits (scraps from full and top grain leathers) and gluing and pressing them together. This leather is most often painted and stamped with leather patterns or wrapped in vinyl, pvc or another synthetic material.
Bonded leather is the lowest of the low. Bonded leather is made by mixing leather powders usually with vinyl. this mixture is then molded into shape and painted or wrapped.
If you want to buy good leather products shoot for full or top grain leather. Suede is essentially its own class so if you want those blue suede shoes, go for it. If your leather belt starts to crack and peel only after a short period of time. You bought some crap leather. Go for that full grain and it will last a life time.