Facts >> Leather
One of the first indicators of leather quality is the price.
However, leather suffers from the same truism as just about every
other purchase you might consider in that you do not always get
what you pay for, although you should. Therefore, as a consumer
or leather hobbyist, there are ways to get past the price and
evaluate what you are actually buying.
To determine the differences in leather quality, there are a few things to consider:
Type of Animal
The animal, bird, fish, or reptile from which the hide or skin is from makes a difference. Some leathers are more prized than others are. The exotic nature of the leather, durability, and its richness can be factors determining the demand for a hide.
Keep in mind that even within a prized category of hides, quality
will vary. For example, not all ostrich is created equal.
The tanning process is another factor that defines leather quality.
As soon as a hide and its original owner (the animal) part company,
the hide begins to deteriorate. This makes perfect sense if you
consider that hide, like skin starts as living tissue.
How the hide is cared for immediately after it is removed from
the animal and the process used to preserve it and prepare it
can make a good hide better or sadly, a complete waste of time
and money. Find out a little bit about your sources if you are
buying hides. In this case, reputation does count but I will discuss
this in more detail later on.
The finest leather quality is clear, supple, and clean, which
is called “full-grain.” Lower leather quality has the surfaced
altered. Additionally, lower leather quality will feel stiff,
partly from the excessive coating needed to hide imperfections.
The best leather will need little or no treatment. You want to
find leather that shows the grain variations. You should also
be able to see and feel fat wrinkles where the hide naturally
covered fatty areas of the animal. Therefore, when choosing leather,
look for something that looks natural. You should also get that
natural leather smell and it should feel soft and supple.
When considering leather quality, an excellent place to start
looking is where the hide came from. For origin, think of what
the industry analysts are saying:
Poorer quality hides come from Asia, although it is true that
the Asian leather industry has been catching up to European standards
which are considered the best in recent years. Asia is also the
primary supplier of some skin types such as goat hide.
Without a doubt, European leather is the finest you will find
anywhere. Always proud of their work, you cannot go wrong when
buying leather from this area.
North American Leather
Northern American hides are good leather quality and usually
Central and South America Leather
Leather hides from Central and South America are considered mediocre
but usually reasonably priced.
One excellent way to tell if the quality is good or bad is to
smell it. If it has a rotten smell or smell of chemical, then
it is not good quality. Poor quality leather will omit an odor
from the processing chemicals such as formaldehyde. Even if you
do not know what formaldehyde smells like, any chemical-like odor
is a sign of a lower quality product. In some extreme cases, the
leather will smell decayed or even retain the smell of manure.
You want to look at the grain of the leather, which is the smooth
side or the side that was closest to the hair or fur of the animal.
Leather should be soft without being mushy and it should not be
stiff like cardboard. For instance, when bending a good quality
piece with the grain side up, the grain will be supple and not
crack. If it does crack, you are looking at a product of lower
Full-Grain / Full Top-Grain
When buying leather, look for the words “Full-grain” or “Full
top-grain”. This is especially important if you are looking for
strong pieces such as luggage or boots. Hides are sorted based
on the number of and degree of imperfections that might include
the errant butcher cut or tiny holes left by parasites carried
by the animal. Expect to see brands and barb wired marks for North
American cattle hides.
These imperfections, while naturally occurring or accidental,
do reduce the graded quality of the hide. Once sorted, each individual
hide is then mechanically separated into the different layers
of skin. The top layer, closest to the hair or fur of the animal
is called “top-grain” or “full-grain”, which is considered the
best quality. The layers underneath are called splits.
In furniture, you will often see promotional items made out of
splits versus full-grain. This does not mean that the leather
quality is poor but simply that it is part of the grading system
and jargon used by the industry to describe the hide. This helps
consumers assess what they are paying for. However, for the consumer
this goes back to pricing.
You would not want to pay the same price for an item made from
a split layer as you would for a full-grain item. If you are not
sure about what you are looking at or if the seller is giving
you the entire story, ask to look at an unfinished edge if possible.
On a piece of full top grain leather, you can see the fiber layer
at the bottom as well as the grain layer on top, which is more
compact. It will resemble a squished sponge. On a split, you will
see even layers of fiber. If the split is pigmented, the layer
of pigment will be on top.
Additionally, a pigment layer is very easy to tell apart from
grain. With the pigmentation process, the leather surface is colored
with opaque color. Because this process is so good, it is used
for hiding imperfections.
A translucent aniline dye is used to color high quality leather.
The result from this process is a variation of color. Because
this particular process is used on unfinished, top-quality leather,
a softer feel is achieved. Another process for color can be used
on top-grain hides. For this process, semi-aniline is used, which
produces a nice, uniform color.
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