Leather: Grades and Quality

Leather seems to be a mystery to some. This series of posts about leather gear is designed to demystify leather and encourage those who are curious to explore their interests. Today’s post is about leather itself: how to know quality from junk, how where it comes from makes a difference, and to help educate you about what to get so you know what you’re getting. All of this comes from my Complete Guide to Leather, which I just published on my website. I give credit to Mr. John Pendal (Mr. International Leather 2003) and GlovedCopSF for some of the content from material they have previously written and which I adapted for my guide to leather gear.

  • No two hides are the same. It may seem an obvious point, but all leather was once a living animal. Each hide is a different size and shape and has different flaws: scratches, blemishes, insect bites, etc. A good leather manufacturer will cut around these imperfections (or disguise them within the body of the product), but that increases manufacturing time and scrap (waste). “Clear” (unblemished) leather is much more expensive than leather that reveals some flaws. The question you should ask yourself is how badly the flaws show, and if the blemishes add character to the product or are unsightly eyesores.
  • Leather varies in thickness. Leather thickness is usually measured in ounces. One ounce equals 1/64 inch in thickness. Thus, a weight of 7 to 8 oz. means the leather is 7/64 to 8/64 inches in thickness or approximately 1/8 inch thick. The thickness of leather varies to some extent throughout the hide. This is why leathers are usually shown with a range of thickness such as 4 to 5 oz., or 6 to 7 oz. As a comparison, a quarter (coin) is equal to a 4 oz. thickness. A standard thickness for belts is a 7 to 8 oz leather.
  • One good indicator of the quality of a leather garment is thickness of the leather. Thicker leather provides more protection and durability. But it is also heavier, which is not always a preferred characteristic.
  • Several types of leather are used in crafting leather garments: cowhide, deer hide, boar hide, kangaroo, etc. Of these, cow hide is predominant. Cowhide is strong. It wears well. It is less expensive than other leathers. Considering its price and performance, this is perhaps the best material in existence.
  • A green (untanned) cowhide is thick so it is usually split into two layers before tanning. “Top leather” shows the grain of the outer skin, and it is the toughest of the two layers. The “split” layer is the bottom, fleshy side, and it tans with a smooth or suede finish. This “split” is tough in its own right, and being less expensive than top leather, it constitutes a very good per-dollar value. Its main drawback is its tendency to abrade, owing to its smooth surface.
  • Hides can come from all over the world: The price of hides varies greatly from one country to another. If your leather manufacturer cares how the animals were treated or which chemicals were used in the tanning process, they are likely to choose hides that come with some welfare and quality guarantees, which increases the price.
  • Hides stretch by different amounts: The neck end of the hide stretches more than the rear – so a good manufacturer will make sure that they lay the pattern symmetrically over the hide. Trouser legs and the backs of shirts could be cut from the back end of the hide where they will stretch less, and cuffs and collars from the neck end. However, this also creates more scrap (waste) which increases the price.
  • Tanning process: The average thickness of a tanned cowhide is 5mm. This is too thick for most uses, so the hide is divided into a “grained” hide and one or two “splits”. The splits are put through rollers to emboss a fake grain on them, but are lower quality and so are usually used for furniture and car upholstery. If the “grained” hide has excessive scarring or marks it might be buffed smooth and embossed with a fake grain. This will allow the whole hide to be used for clothing, but should also lower the price. Look closely at the leather you are about to buy. If you can see tiny hair holes the leather has probably been aniline tanned and is a “grained” hide. This is the highest quality leather you can buy. If you can’t see any hair holes the hide might be a “split”, or have been buffed smooth or had a pigment coating. These kinds of leather are often shinier and less able to absorb oil-based leather care products. This is not necessarily a bad thing: one of the qualities of aniline tanned leather is that the dye can rub off, especially next to hot and sweaty skin, so even top quality leather manufacturers may use chrome tanned leather to make jockstraps, for instance.
  • Check the finishing touches: There are steps a leather artisan would take to finish a product that are easily skipped to save money. For example, when thick leather is cut for a belt or sling, a craftsman might bevel the edges of the leather and then polish the cut edge with a piece of bone to prolong the life of the product. Sometimes you will see edges that look as if they’ve been cut with no further work done.

Tomorrow: why custom leather gear is the way to go if you’re serious about leather.