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The quality of leather

7 Mar 2021
by Sjoerd

It's no secret that at Scrittura Elegante we love leather. And we are not alone in this. The scent, the touch, the natural aging process, the feeling of luxury ... There are many lovers of these properties of leather.

But what types of leather are there actually? And what is the difference in quality? And what about leather tanning? You can read all about it in this post. If you buy a leather handbag, shoes, a wallet or a leather notebook, it is difficult as a consumer to judge the quality. And let's already reveal: there are huge differences in quality. If you buy a leather handbag for 15 euros, you may wonder what quality that is. And is it really leather? Determining this is no longer so easy nowadays. Simply smelling it will not help, because we will soon see that the typical smell of leather depends on the used tanning process.

The skin

If we want to talk about the quality of leather, we can of course only start with the skin. Which part of the hide of the cow (or other animal) do we actually use for leather?

The skin roughly consists of three layers, each of which can have different layers:

  • The epidermis is the top layer of a skin. The epidermis contains the hairs of the skin and must therefore be removed before the skin can be processed into leather. This is a very thin layer that must be removed very carefully.
  • Under the epidermis we find the dermis, either dermis or corium. This is the layer we need for our leather. The dermis itself consists of two layers: the grain layer and the reticular layer. We will discuss this layer in more detail later.
  • The bottom layer is the connective tissue layer, and this too must be removed. Sometimes a small amount of subcutaneous connective tissue is retained on the leather layer to ensure optimum tensile strength.

Different quality types

As mentioned, it is the leather layer of the hide that is used for making leather. The leather is tanned in order to preserve it. More on this later. The leather layer consists of the grain layer and the reticular layer:

  • The grain layer is on the surface and shows the grain of the skin. The grain layer also contains holes from the hairs that have been removed from the epidermis.
  • The reticular layer, or flesh layer. The fibers here are coarser than in the grain layer. They are also almost horizontal, while the fibers in the grain layer are much more vertical. As a rule, the more vertical fibers, the stronger and more durable the leather.

1 Full grain leather

Full-grain leather, or full-grain leather, is made from the top layer of the leather, and has not been processed by sanding or polishing. It is the strongest leather because all grain grains are still present. It is also highly breathable, which creates a beautiful patina over time by absorbing moisture and oils.

In addition, full grain leather contains all skin impurities, such as scars from insect bites or barbed wire. While these impurities contribute to the authenticity and uniqueness of leather, you don't want to have too much of them either. That is why the best skins are carefully selected.

2 Top grain leather

The second grade is top grain leather and is also made from the grain layer running through to the reticular layer. However, this type of leather is carefully sanded and polished. This makes this leather a bit thinner and therefore slightly less durable.
It has a smoother and smoother appearance, and you will see fewer blemishes. Top grain leather is colored with pigments which closes the natural pores. Moreover, this leather is more pliable.

3 Split leather

The third quality is split leather: This is made from the reticular layer. Sometimes this layer is even split several times.

This type of leather contains little to no vertical fibers and is therefore less durable than full-grain and top-grain leather. Moreover, there is no grain drawing at all, so it looks less natural and authentic. Split leather is even thinner and more pliable than full grain and top grain leather.

Sometimes the grain is artfully reapplied through an embossing process to make it look more authentic. Patterns can also be obtained by means of airbrush paints that are reminiscent of the structure of leather.

A special form of split leather is suede that has been specially processed to make it very soft. The open fiber structure makes suede velvety soft.

genuine leather

There are different opinions about the term 'genuine leather'. Sometimes the term genuine leather, literally 'real leather', is used to simply indicate that a product is made of genuine natural leather. In this case, however, it says nothing about the quality of the leather. Others mean by genuine leather the bottom layers of split leather, so the least quality type of genuine leather.

So make sure that the term 'genuine leather' or 'real leather', or '100% leather' does not say anything about the quality of the leather. In fact, these labels are often used to give less quality split leather the illusion of high quality. It should be clear that full grain and top grain leather is the best quality. Articles made of this quality leather last for years and years, and actually only become more beautiful with use over time.

Tanning of the leather

De lederhuid moet worden gelooid. Waarom? Nou, omdat het anders simpelweg zou ontbinden. Vandaag de dag zijn er twee methodes van looien die het vaakst worden gebruikt.

Chrome tanning

Chromium tanning is done with the help of chemicals: chromium salts. This process is less traditional and laborious than the previous methods and therefore more affordable. The biggest advantages of chrome tanning are the relatively low cost and the fact that this process produces a smoother, softer leather than vegetable tanning. The biggest drawback is the burden on the environment. In Europe, tanning is therefore subject to strict environmental rules, which means that chrome tanning has partly been displaced to countries such as China

Vegetable tanning

Vegetable tanning is a lot more environmentally friendly than chrome tanning. Tanning is done with organic substances such as tree bark (often oak) or gallic acid. The leather is soaked in rotating drums with the above substances. Soaking also leaves the leather feeling soft. But it is also much more laborious and therefore more expensive. Another disadvantage is that vegetable tanned leather is less flexible than chrome tanned leather. Fortunately, vegetable tanned leather does become smoother with age. But perhaps the biggest advantage of vegetable tanned leather is that it has that typical, slightly sweet woody, scent that we associate with real leather. Chrome tanned leather, on the other hand, also smells a bit chemical.

It is too simple to say that vegetable tanned leather is always better than chrome tanned leather, as some claim. Although the environmental aspect will be decisive for many. But it also depends on the applications. Some applications require a certain flexibility from the outset that vegetable tanned leather simply does not have. Reference is also made to the beautiful patina that vegetable tanned leather acquires over time. But in reality, this is less due to the tanning process but to the fact that expensive vegetable tanning often uses full grain leather which has this property. After all, it makes less economic sense to tanning a cheap, lower quality leather in an expensive way.

Pelle Conciata al Vegetale

Part of our range comes from artisan workshops that source their leather from the Pelle Conciata al Vegetale, a consortium of vegetable tanneries in Tuscany, Italy. These items also come with the official certificate so that you know that you have a product that not only has an artisan tradition, but is also manufactured in a more environmentally friendly way.

Watch a video about the tanning process, made by the consortium here:

Hopefully this article has given you an idea about the different types of leather quality, and that only the best quality types will give you the product we love: a luxurious natural product that gets better with age, and takes the marks of your life. .

And hopefully you've also learned that that cheap handbag labeled 'genuine leather', or '100% leather' generally means that the manufacturer is trying to make it more beautiful than it is.

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