Obviously that’s a pretty contentious thing to say, and definitely a matter of opinion, but in our view most leather is designed to look good in the short term without much concern for how it looks or lasts in the long term. Hopefully after you’ve taken a few minutes to read through our ‘Leather 101’ below, you’ll know just enough not to get ripped off!
One of the sad realities of modern life is that unless you have enough time to really research something, it’s pretty easy for people to pull the wool over your eyes. This is all too true with leather unfortunately, and a shocking number of people will happily sell you any old mass produced characterless tat for a tenner. Or perhaps worse is that anything genuinely decent is branded as über-premium and you’re asked to cough up stupid amounts of money. £300 for an iPad case? £3000 for a briefcase? Maybe it’s just me but come on…, someone somewhere is laughing all the way to the bank.
The vast majority of leather these days (90%+) is produced in industrial quantities using pretty nasty chemical concoctions. It’s called Chromium Tanned leather, and they basically put hides in gigantic drum vats for a day, usually with a chemical called trivalent chromium. Unfortunately, trivalent chromium can oxidise into hexavalent chromium, and if you’ve ever watched the film Erin Brockovich you’ll remember that is NOT a good thing… If you haven’t watched the film, take my word for it, you don’t want hexavalent chromium in your water supply.
That said, the reality is that not everyone prioritises that kind of thing, often cost is the overwhelming concern. But in all honesty it’s not just the environmental concerns that make most leather poor quality, the actual process itself just isn’t up to making a good product. And if cost is your highest priority then you ought to know that leather produced cheaply and quickly ages terribly, often cracking and showing serious signs of wear in less than a year. It’s not nice ageing either, it’s just old. And usually pretty tatty. And then you need to buy a new one.
In our view, the best leather is tanned with natural tannins. This produces a product called Vegetable Tanned Leather, and it’s really very lovely stuff indeed! You want to stroke it and smell it - it feels, looks and smells like leather should feel, look and smell. It feels traditional, almost ancient. A great leather item has an almost heirloom quality to it.
Now contrary to what you may be thinking, vegetable tanned leather is not tanned with actual vegetables. Think ‘vegetable matter’ not ‘peas and carrots’. Think leaves, bark, wood, fruits and roots etc. All this vegetation contains natural tannins and these help convert the hide into a beautiful piece of 100% natural leather. It’s a process that’s undertaken in pits and can take anything up to 6 months.
Veg tanned leather ages gracefully. It develops a beautiful patina and becomes even more gorgeous over time. Treated well, it softens a bit with the oils from your hands. Treated poorly, over the years it will stiffen up a bit as it dries out. Some people like that. If not, a little leather balm will sort things out quickly enough. Really good leather will last a lifetime. Actually, several lifetimes.
As you know, the majority of leather is a by-product of the meat industry, typically beef. Now, if your cow was a lucky cow then it got to roam in fields. It’s only natural and most of us wouldn’t want it any other way. But as a result it probably scratched itself on trees or fences, and it probably got bit a few times by insects and bugs. This can mark and scar the hide which gives it lots of interest and character, but it’s not especially uniform and it can be much more complex to dye and cut. So many leather producers slice the leather into thinner and thinner slices, ostensibly to remove the marked surface but it also has the added advantage of multiplying the quantity of leather from the same hide. There’s a surprise.
Synthetic leather (Pleather etc)
It’s not leather, it’s plastic. It’s ubiquitous, but avoid it if you can.
The fact that Bonded Leather is allowed to be called leather at all is a bit shameful. It’s basically all the old leather shavings and cuttings, pulped up into a slurry, mixed with glues, rolled out flat and finally a grain is rolled onto it. It’s the MDF of leather. It comes in easy to use rolls a couple of metres wide and manufacturers buy it for a fraction of the cost of the real stuff. It’s becoming very commonplace but it’s certainly not natural.
Much of the strength in leather is in the upper layers, and this is the very layer they cut off when producing ‘genuine leather’! Having taken the very best bit of the leather off, they then resurface it by either pressing or rolling a new ‘fake’ surface. Fancy Crocodile skin? No problem, that can easily be made from a cow. More often than not, they’ll then paint it. Yes, paint it. You’ll see ‘Genuine Leather’ stamped on lots of things as if some kind of badge of honour. We’re not so sure.
Top Grain is nice, but it’s not perfect. It’s the top layer that they sliced off when they made the ‘genuine leather’. It’s pretty thin though so it looses a lot of its natural strength. And it’s still got those blemishes, so they’ll usually sand it perfectly smooth and then ‘correct’ it to, erm, put a grain effect back on it. It looks and feels quite nice for a while, but it can’t breath as the surface has been squashed flat so it won’t last long or age well.
Ahhhh, the king or queen of leathers! Full grain is exactly what you think it is; it is the full thickness of the leather, unadulterated, unsquashed, uncorrected, unpainted, unsanded. This is what we use – full grain vegetable tanned leather. It can be anything from 1 to 10mm thick, and will last forever given a little tlc every now and again. It will age beautifully, going darker with time and exposure to the elements and the oils on your hands.