You're at a store wanting to buy some leather based products, trying to understand what those product tags are talking about. You're not sure which one to buy, and how do I even tell apart a fake leather? Is "Genuine Leather" real leather?
There's a lot of misinformation about leather, and even sellers try to convince consumers to buy lower grades leather. We hope by reading this guide you can have better buying decisions.
There are no official standard for leather grades. However, there are 4 common leather grades based on finishes and which layer in the cow hide the leather are split from. These categories naming could differ between manufactures.
The leather grades are as follows—in order of quality:
- Full Grain Leather
- Top Grain Leather
- Genuine / Suede / Split Grain Leather
- Bonded Leather
Take a look at the cross section of a cowhide. You can see where each leather types comes from a cowhide. Notice there's no bonded leather on the diagram, we'll get into it later.
Full-grain leather has the complete grain intact. This is the best quality of leather and usually is high in price. It is strong, breathable and will develop beautiful patina with age. It may have varying shades of pigments and dyes across the leather.
Since the leather has not been altered (except removing hair and adding coloring), you can see natural markings such as scarring, blemishes, insect bites and stretch marks. A common misconceptions is thinking of this markings as defect. Instead, think of this as proof of natural origin.
It's basically full grain that's been buffed to remove the top part and it's imperfections away. This is the most common type of leather used in fashion products (think handbags), because manufactures cannot have cosmetic variances in their product.
The surface of this leather have been sanded and finish applied, giving it uniform color all across the hide and "smooth" feel. While this finish takes away most breathe-ability, it prevents stains and water that would otherwise sink into full-grain leather.
This is what's left after a cowhide has been split and it's top grain taken away. It's not as strong as full-grain or top-grain since the strength in a cowhide mostly comes from the fibers in the grain. It won't have the natural markings and products made from this leather won't stand the test of time.
Suede is well known for its signature textured feel, formed from top part split leather. Although suede feel great, it's less durable because it's thinner and absorbs liquid very easily due to its porous surface.
"Genuine" leather is made from bottom part of split grain leather—leftover of making good leather, coated with polymer and dyes, and has artificial grain applied to its surface. It has uniform color, resistant to stain and spills, plastic feel and zero breathe-ability. Genuine leather translates to ‘the poorest quality leather we can get away with.’ If something is marked ‘genuine leather’, don't buy it.
At the bottom of leather quality, bonded leather uses scrap leather that's been shredded to near pulp. These shreds are then bonded together using polyurethane or latex on top of fiber backing. There's no way to tell the composition of real leather versus chemical. Due to this chemical content, it smells awful.
It's obviously very cheap, so it is popular in furniture upholstery and other commercial usage. If your leather is flaking and peeling, that's probably what you've got.
Bonded leather could be considered environmentally friendly since it using recycled bits of leather that would otherwise going to trash. But then you have to think of all the crappy wallets and belts being thrown away due to poor quality.
If you're going to buy a leather products, and you want it to lasts long, buy either full-grain or top-grain. Try avoid anything that's marked ‘genuine leather’, that means mostly anything on store in malls.